Hundreds of candles created a dull glow at the base of the mural that contained a likeness of Joe Paterno, each flame flickering to commemorate the year since the death of Penn State’s Hall of Fame coach.
Time hasn’t erased the pain of supporters who feel Paterno’s reputation has been unfairly sullied in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Paterno died of lung cancer Jan. 22, 2012, at age 85. At least 150 supporters attended the candlelight vigil Tuesday, the anniversary of his death, braving frigid conditions to pay tribute at the downtown mural just more than a block away from the Penn State campus.
”I definitely think that everything that has happened isn’t at all indicative of the kind of man that he was,” said Bridget Beromedi, 32, of State College, who wore a shirt with Paterno’s image. She held up a sign that read ”JoePa. Legends never die.”
She added that Paterno’s role in the scandal ”got totally overblown because of his name. He got an unfair deal.”
He died more than two months after being fired in the frantic days following the arrest of former assistant coach Sandusky in November 2011.
Organizers lit candles inside white or blue paper bags, many inscribed with handwritten messages from supporters. The gathering slowly broke up within 45 minutes after mural artist Michael Pilato thanked attendees, several of whom wore ”JVP” buttons on their winter parkas.
Paterno’s legacy remains a sensitive topic for groups of alumni, former players and residents. Some attendees, including Pilato, also said Paterno’s role was sensationalized by media coverage and a rush to judgment.
A year ago, the campus was flooded with mourners. Commemorations were much smaller this year with temperatures in the teens and dropping.
A family spokesman said the Paternos didn’t plan on attending public gatherings.
Earlier in the day, a makeshift sign on cardboard flapped in a cold wind at the spot where a bronze statue of Paterno used to stand.
”Joseph Paterno. Always remembered. Always a legend,” read the sign attached to a tree with white wire. The statue remains safely stored in an undisclosed location, a university spokeswoman said.
Flowers and mementos were left by supporters at Paterno’s gravesite. Supporters like Dan Hamm, a freshman from Williamsport, have said Paterno’s 46-year career as a whole should be taken into consideration, including his focus on academics.
”We wanted to pay our respects. We wanted to celebrate who he was as a person,” Hamm said after visiting Paterno’s grave at a State College cemetery.
Then, nodding his head toward Paterno’s adorned gravesite, Hamm said, ”You can see here that Joe Paterno was Penn State, and Penn State will always be Joe Paterno.”
Former FBI director Louis Freeh released findings July 12 in the school’s internal investigation of the scandal. Freeh accused the coach and three former school administrators of covering up allegations against Sandusky.
The retired defensive coordinator has been sentenced to at least 30 years in prison after being convicted of 45 criminal counts. Prosecutors said the sexual abuse occurred off and on campus, including at the football facility. Sandusky has denied the allegations.
On July 22, Penn State removed Paterno’s statue, which was a gathering point for mourners last January. The next day, the NCAA reacted with uncharacteristic swiftness in levying strict sanctions including a four-year bowl ban, strict scholarship cuts and a $60 million fine.
Paterno was also stripped of 111 victories, meaning he no longer held the major college record of 409 career wins.
Penn State is still coping with the massive fallout from the scandal. On Tuesday, a young man who testified that Sandusky tickled and grabbed him in a campus shower sued the retired assistant coach, his charity and the university.
But Paterno’s family and the three administrators have vehemently denied Freeh’s allegations as well as suspicions they took part in a cover-up. Paterno’s family has been planning what a spokesman has called a comprehensive response to Freeh’s findings.
But on Tuesday, the family remained in private.
After visiting Paterno’s grave with his friend Hamm, Nick Bucci said he felt his school handled the scandal well overall, given the extent of the fallout, with some exceptions.
Bucci said the school should honor Paterno someday – but not without more perspective.
”A day like today, those emotions might be high,” said Bucci, of Dayton, Md. ”I don’t think now is the time to do it. I think you have to wait.”