Penn State freshmen Taylor Shears, left, from State College, Pa., and Taylor Tregear, of Phoenixville, Pa., attend a candlelight vigil on the first anniversary of the death of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno on Tuesday in State College, Pa. / Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Despite a subzero windchill, about 400 Joe Paterno supporters gathered in front of a mural in downtown here to honor the man who commanded Penn State's football sidelines for 46 years. Students, alumni and fans bundled in jackets, scarves and hats huddle together, taking solace that the night had allowed them to celebrate Paterno's life surrounded by fellow supporters.
On the one-year anniversary of the longtime Penn State head football coach's death, 409 luminaries lined Heister Street in front of Michael Pilato's Inspiration Mural. The number represents each of Paterno's wins before 111 of his victories were vacated as part of the sanctions handed down by the NCAA in response to a report that alleged top school administrators could have prevented Jerry Sandusky from sexually abusing young boys.
Paterno died in January 2012 of complications related to his lung cancer at age 85.
Pilato spoke briefly about how appreciative he was of the crowd, saying, "We are all here as one big family to honor a great man." Pilato said Paterno was looking down on Heister Street and would see the "409" depicted on the Inspiration Mural.
Melinda Wright, one of the organizers of the vigil and a friend of Pilato's, said the idea for the event was formed in November because she hadn't heard of anything organized to honor Paterno's death. Wright, of Chester Springs, Pa., said the intent of the vigil was to encourage those who were in mourning to come to the mural rather than Paterno's burial site, out of respect to his family.
Although she did not graduate from the university, Wright said that living in Pennsylvania her whole life forced her to be a fan of the Penn State football team, as well as Paterno. She joked that on the day she was born, she was told two things: you need to vote and you need to support Penn State.
For Ryan Patten, a sophomore majoring in recreation, parks and tourism management, coming to Tuesday's vigil was a way for him to heal existing wounds.
The lifelong State College resident said Paterno has been a big part of his life since he was born. In some ways, he said, Paterno created a connection within the Patten family. Patten's brother, sister, father and mother attended the university during Paterno's tenure. Patten said that for his whole life, Paterno posters hung on the walls of his bedroom and football season was the best time of the year.
So when the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case devastated the university, it hit close to home. Suddenly everything he believed to be true now needed to be questioned, Patten said. Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse last June and will serve at least 30 years in prison.
"The scandal ripped a chunk of my childhood," Patten said. "I think remembering [Paterno] will help me get it back."
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