(MCT) — STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — On the most frigid night of the year, about 150 people found warmth outside, on a quiet street in the downtown area barricaded by two police cars.
The temperature dipped below 10 degrees by 7 p.m. Tuesday. But they came, bundled in scarves and thick wool hats. They came, sporting buttons honoring his 409 wins and sweatshirts with slogans that said, “Thank you, Joe.”
They came with candles, and as they talked to one another, often in hushed tones, it was clear they came for comfort.
On the one-year anniversary of Joe Paterno’s death, supporters of the Penn State football coach gathered for a candlelight vigil at a downtown mural that includes a depiction of Paterno.
The Hall of Fame coach died of lung cancer, 74 days after he was fired because of his role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Paterno was 85.
A total of 409 tea lights lined the sidewalk in front of the mural. Each candle was placed in a white paper bag that included a handwritten message from fans.
The overwhelming sway Paterno once held over this sleepy college town has largely disappeared. The 7-foot, 900-pound bronze statue of Paterno that stood outside Beaver Stadium was removed by forklift in July. Most “JoePa” memorabilia at downtown shops has been replaced by items supporting Bill O’Brien, the Nittany Lions’ new coach.
But for one night, townspeople and students came to offer support.
They sang the alma mater, much softer than the version sung at Beaver Stadium, and participated in a “Joe Paterno” chant.
State College resident Michael Pilato, who painted the mural, addressed the crowd briefly. “As Joe Paterno is looking down right now ... those victories aren’t for him,” Pilato said. “They’re for all the people whose lives he touched.”
But when event organizer Melinda Wright began planning the tribute in November, she didn’t “expect anyone to show up at all.” She did not contact the Paterno family because she wanted to give the members space as they grieved. She did not want people to crowd Paterno’s grave, which is nestled in a modest cemetery a few miles from campus.
Wright wanted to host something intimate. She wanted to honor the good in Paterno and have people share stories, professing what the coach meant to them. And they did.
Freshman Olivia Miller accepted her admittance to Penn State on this day last year. She came Tuesday night because her father, a Penn State fan, had met Paterno once.
“So he’s a part of our family,” Miller said. “Forever.”
Tony House, a 1979 Penn State alumnus, drove an hour and a half from his home in Harrisburg because to him, Paterno will always embody the university. House remembers walking to statistics class one day when he saw Paterno across the street, heading to the barber. House never made it to class. Instead, he followed the coach — just for a chance to say hello.
“He was always there for us,” House said. “And now we’re here for him.”