Man whose letter sparked backlash at PSU a world traveler, says African people 'wonderful'

The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat (TNS)
Jonathan Sutherland

The Johnstown man whose letter to a Penn State football player sparked intense reaction for its racial overtones is a world traveler who says he loves to visit Africa.

In a 2017 interview with The Tribune-Democrat, David Petersen said he and his wife, Cindie, were about to make their sixth trip to that continent.

“We’re just really loving Africa," he said. "We enjoy meeting the people. The African people are wonderful.”

Some might see that as a contradiction to Petersen's message to Penn State football player Jonathan Sutherland.

In a letter – which Petersen confirmed to The Tribune-Democrat that he had mailed to Sutherland in care of the university – the Johnstown man lamented the player's long dreadlocks and said he "would welcome the reappearance of dress codes for athletes."

Petersen said he is a 1966 graduate of Penn State, where he studied speech pathology. Tribune-Democrat archives show that Petersen worked in speech pathology – helping those with communication difficulties – for 33 years before retiring from the Hiram G. Andrews Center in Upper Yoder Township. His wife also worked as a speech pathologist.

Petersen's letter to Sutherland, a Nittany Lions defensive back, said: "We miss the clean cut young men and women" of past eras, and: "Watching the Idaho game on TV we couldn't help but notice your – well – awful hair."

He added: "You need to remember you represent all Penn Staters both current and those alumni from years past."

Petersen's letter also said he expected Sutherland to "be playing 'on Sunday' in the future but we have stopped watching the NFL due to the disgusting tattoos, awful hair and immature antics in the end zone. Players should act as though they've 'been there before.' "

The issue took off late Monday, when Sutherland's teammate, defensive lineman Antonio Shelton, tweeted an image of the letter with this comment: "One of my teammates got this. Explain to me how this isn’t racist."

Attempts to reach Petersen on Wednesday for a follow-up interview were unsuccessful.

Penn State's response: Late Monday, Penn State issued a statement on Twitter, noting that the letter's content "does not align with our values. We strongly condemn this message or any message of intolerance."

In a Twitter statement, Sandy Barbour, Penn State's vice president for intercollegiate athletics, said: "I stand with our Penn State student athletes and appreciate how they represent PSU in competition, in the classroom and in the community. Their dress, tattoos, or hairstyle has no impact on my support, nor does their gender, skin color, sexuality or religion!"

Penn State football coach James Franklin opened his weekly press conference Tuesday by addressing the situation. The No. 10 Nittany Lions are preparing to play Saturday at No. 17 Iowa.

"The football that I know and love brings people together and embraces differences," Franklin said. "Black, white, brown. Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. Rich or poor. Rural or urban. Republican or Democrat. Long hair, short hair, no hair. They are all in that locker room together.

"Teams all over this country are the purest form of humanity that we have. We don't judge. We embrace differences. We live, we learn, we grow, we support and we defend each other. We're a family. Penn State football, Penn State University and Happy Valley provide the same opportunities to embrace one another 12 Saturdays each fall. PSU football brings people together like very few things on this planet – 110,000 fans from all different backgrounds throughout our region, from all different parts of the state; and they are hugging and high-fiving and singing 'Sweet Caroline' together.

"This is my football. This is the game that I love and most importantly, my players that I love and will defend like sons. Ultimately this is the definition and embodiment of what we are all about."

Franklin called Sutherland "one of the most respected players in our program. He's the ultimate example of what our program is all about. He's a captain. He's a dean's list honor student. He's confident. He's articulate. He's intelligent. He's thoughtful. He's caring and he's committed. He's got two of the most supportive parents and I would be so blessed if my daughters would marry someone with his character and integrity one day."

Around the globe: In that 2017 interview with The Tribune-Democrat, David and Cindie Petersen said they had traveled to 93 countries, including Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, Egypt, Kenya and many places in Europe. They said they had been to Thailand 10 times.

Cindie Petersen was 71 in 2017, and David Petersen was 75.

Their home was filled with photographs and artifacts representing their many excursions, including a picture of the couple with a cheetah, an African big cat.

“We love the photography and wildlife – that’s a big thing now with a lot of our trips,” Cindie Petersen said then.

“Not everyone gets to experience a National Geographic photo for real, but we’ve been able to do that. We’re very much into the conservation of wildlife; we want to see the animals and be able to tell people about them before they’re not here.”

In 2010, David Petersen told The Tribune-Democrat that he was an accomplished woodworker, and had completed an adult-education course at Greater Johnstown Area Vocational-Technical School.

Petersen called himself a car enthusiast. His 2003 Jaguar had recently earned him first place in judging through the North American Jaguar Club.

“I enjoy showing our cars, and I enjoy seeing what others have done with their cars,” Petersen said then, noting that he and his wife were members of Flood City Corvette Club in Johnstown, the Pittsburgh Jaguar Club and the North American Jaguar Club.

Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat and, and CNHI regional editor for Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio. He can be reached at 814-532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.