Fans Brave Freezing Cold for Candlelight Tribute to Joe Paterno
"JVP 409 Forever."
"Your legacy will live on, Joe. We are, because you were."
"Thank you for showing the country how 'Success With Honor' is achieved."
Those were just a few of the messages that adorned the candlelit blue and white paper bags lining the entrance of the Suzanne Pohland Paterno Catholic Student Faith Center in State College on Wedneday evening. The center, on Park Avenue, sits just a few blocks away from Beaver Stadium.
Close to 75 onlookers braved the freezing cold to observe the two year anniversary of Paterno's death. The longtime Penn State football coach died on January 22, 2012 of complications from lung cancer at the age of 85. The event was organized by Inspiration Way, a foundation that says it wants to highlight the positive impact Paterno made on the university and the community.
Inspiration Way launched an online campaign, asking people to send in messages about coach Paterno. Some 600 submissions were received. Volunteers copied those heartfelt messages onto paper bags. Armed with tea candles, lighters and sand, they swiftly darted in and out of the church carrying boxes and boxes of the paper bags representing the collective thoughts, feelings, and emotions of many in the Penn State community.
"We just wanted to collect stories and get that healing process started," says Melinda Wright, executive director of Inspiration Way. "I'm always shocked when people show up, because it was always the kind of thing where we would just light them, people could read them, and we'd put up video or whatever. But when people show up in -10 degree weather, that amazes me."
Huddled together, gatherers reminisced about their days at Penn State and waxed poetic about the university's most famous figure. Those who had met the man everyone simply knew as "JoePa" talked about his legacy, and his compassion toward others.
Karl Fazler, 49, who has been living in State College since graduating from Penn State in 1986, still remembers the first time he met Paterno. While enrolled at the university, his mother suffered a heart attack and needed surgery. She was big fan of Paterno, so Fazler asked a friend in the athletic department to get a signed football from the football team.
To his surprise, Paterno hand-delivered the football to the hospital. They shook hands, the student thanked the coach for his help, and that was that. Or so he thought.
Six months later, he spotted Paterno at a local restaurant. They said hello, and Paterno recognized the name. He asked Fazler how his mother was doing.
"This is the man who spent 62 years of his life here for one purpose, and it wasn't just football," Fazler says. "It had a lot to do with the students, the education. The student-athlete that he envisioned in the grand experiment, the library -- everything other than just football. He felt as strongly about the people and the students that he came to than he did the football team. In fact, it was more important to him. That's something that can never be taken away."
Dave Sage, 60, of Coal Township, Pa., was starstruck the first time he met Paterno.
"It was almost like meeting Mickey Mantle or Vince Lombardi," Sage says. "Joe Paterno was Joe Paterno. He's down-to-earth like we all are, and he wasn't above anybody, and he never put himself there. That's who Joe Paterno was. He was just like me and you."
Penn State grad, Sue Wilson lives in Ohio. She met Paterno when he came to Cleveland to help endow two scholarships.
According to Wilson, surviving the bitter cold was insignificant compared to the accomplishments of the late coach.
"Sixty-one minutes of freezing out here for 61 years of man's life, and all the things he built and all the things he did for Penn State- it's well worth it," she says.
Amy Piccolo of Johnstown, Pa., remembers the night after Paterno's death when she and her friends cried on the phone together, mourning the loss of a "truly great man."
"I can't tell you how many people I've met through these types of functions who are just like me," Wilson says. "We share all the same memories, we share all the same loves, and we all support each other. It's just like a family now, and that's over him. He brought us all together."
Brandon Benner, 19, of Juniata County, Pa, remembers how he felt when he first learned of Paterno's death.
"I was a junior in high school, and my whole family was heartbroken," Benner says. "The house was quiet. We didn't say anything. It was like losing a grandfather."
The first in his family to attend college, Benner feels privileged to be a part of the Paterno tribute.
"I feel honored to be here. I remember the day he passed, I said to myself, 'I'm going to go to Penn State,' and Joe was a big reason for that."
"He was more than a coach," Benner says. "He was a mentor, he was a teacher, and an all-around wonderful human being, and a life like that should be honored."