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Penn State Community Mourns The Death Of Legendary Coach Joe Paterno

Paterno statue with crowd
Emily Reddy

A steady stream of mourners visited the bronze Joe Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium yesterday. They went to pay homage to the legendary Penn State football coach.

Most visitors stood and contemplated the statue of Joe Paterno in silence. A few at a time, some walked up to the statue and added candles, flowers, hand-written notes, and Penn State gear to the growing pool of offerings at his feet. By mid-afternoon, someone had draped an American flag over Paterno’s upraised arm. A rosary hung from his other hand. And he wore a blue and white striped Penn State scarf.

Vita McHale graduated from Penn State last May. She brought a picture to add to the memorial.

"It’s a picture of my dad and Joe Paterno," McHale said. "My dad was really sick and Joe Paterno was kind enough to take the time to talk to him and spend time with our family because my dad loved Joe Paterno and Penn State."

McHale was a sophomore at Penn State when the picture was taken. Paterno spent two hours talking with the family and with McHale’s father, who had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.  

"He actually said to his mom, 'Mom, I saw God today.' And she said, 'It’s about time you went back to church.' And he said, 'No, no. I met Joe Paterno,'" McHale said. "I mean, it was his hero. A lot of times when you meet a celebrity you have your hopes built up but you don’t know what that person’s going to be like. And Joe Paterno was the most down-to-earth person we ever met. And he held his hand and he said, 'Joe'…because my dad’s name is Joe. 'Joe, I know you’re going to get through this and things are going to be okay.'”

McHale’s dad eventually died from the Lou Gehrig’s disease at the end of 2010.

"We like to think that he’s excited right now in heaven waiting for Joe Paterno to come up and talk to him and hang out with him," McHale said.

Larry Carter has worked as an usher at Beaver Stadium for the last 20 years.

"I’ve actually seen that man come through the tunnel many years," Carter said. "I adored everything he’s done. Couple times at the blue white games I’ve actually gotten to stand and shake his hand and interact with him a little bit."

Carter drove in from his home in Lewistown to pay homage to Paterno. Carter and his daughter Amber were headed toward the statue to stand nearby and pay tribute to Paterno.

"Probably take a couple of pictures, probably go up and touch the statue, probably cry," Carter said.

Many cried. Many took pictures. Students with the group Penn State Singing Lions sang the alma mater.

David Niemkiewicz sings Paterno’s praises as well. He graduated from Penn State in 1987. His daughter graduated 2011. And his son is a freshman.

He and others say Paterno’s legacy shouldn’t be defined by his handling of child sex abuse charges against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.  

"He’s brought a lot of truth and integrity and honesty, contrary to what has happened in the last couple of months," Niemkiewicz said. "I know what Joe stands for.  My children know what Joe stands for. And I know this country is definitely a better place because of what Joe has done for it."

"You can’t walk around campus without seeing something that reminds you of JoePa," said Andrew Luettgen. "And it would be a shame if we all brushed that aside after he died like a lot of people seem to be doing."

Luettgen was on his way to the statue in a white Penn State sweatshirt. He’s a junior in Telecommunications. His dad, sister, and several aunts and uncles went to Penn State.

Luettgen knew Paterno was sick, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise when he woke up to news that Paterno had died. But he was still sad about it.

"You kind of get the idea that he didn’t die from lung cancer. A lot of people say that he died of a broken heart," Luettgen said. "I just wish they would have let him play three more games, he could have said he coached for his entire life. But, uh, some things don’t play out that way."

Later Sunday, thousands of people gathered in front of Penn State’s Old Main administrative building for a candlelight vigil. Speakers included several football players coached by Joe Paterno. And candles on the steps spelled out JOE and made the shape of his trademark eyeglasses.  

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.