By Kelly Haugh
UPPER BURRELL, Pa. – Over 100 students, faculty, alumni and community members braved the cold and biting wind to pay tribute to beloved coach Joe Paterno at a candlelight vigil Jan. 24 at Penn State New Kensington.
The mood on the PSNK campus was somber as the community rallied around the Lion Shrine at 6 p.m. to remember the man who was so much more than a football coach.
Organizers were pleased with the turnout despite the less than ideal conditions, which they said showed Paterno’s importance to the entire Penn State community.
“I think it’s amazing that the one event that we’ve done so far this year that wasn’t about fun, that wasn’t about giving away things, had more attendance than any other event so far this year,” SGA President Myquan “Que” Harris-Moore said. “It speaks volumes to what JoePa has meant to this community, to this campus and to other Penn Staters and other communities across the country.”
Freshman Leigh Hasting, of Delmont, said it was nice to see everyone, from older alumni to current students, “being all together as one to support Joe Paterno.”
Some of those attending had the honor of meeting Paterno and came to share their stories, while most only wished they’d had that privilege. All wanted to pay their respects to the man who’d devoted the last 61 years to Penn State and perfectly embodied everything the university stood for.
“We’re a family and not just a great university because of Joe Paterno,” PSNK’s Chancellor Dr. Kevin Snider said in his opening remarks. “I think more than anybody, over six decades, Joe has given this university a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, a sense of being that is unlike any other. And tonight we’re here to celebrate that, and we’re doing that much in the way he would have wanted us. We’re doing that as family.”
Joe’s emphasis on family was illustrated by the stories shared by alumnus Ron “Bubba” Hileman, a former equipment manager for Penn State’s football team. Hileman recounted how Paterno had been there for him during the rough patches of his life and had even come to visit him in the hospital while he was fighting cancer. That was just the kind of man Paterno was.
Many of the stories shared brought laughter at Paterno’s quick wit and sense of humor, making the night a true celebration of his life. The stories themselves seemed imbued with that essential Paterno spirit that somehow allowed everyone in attendance to feel connected, both to each other and to a man most had never met. As Snider said, “He really was the bond the brought us together.”
Inevitably, there were also moments of sadness as the Penn State community was able to come together to mourn the loss of the man who’d been the soul of the university for so long.
“Joe Paterno is really, what I would consider, the heart of Penn State University,” said Harris-Moore. “He’s meant so much to the students, faculty, staff and alumni here at Penn State University, so it’s such a heartbreaking loss that he’s passed away.”
Losing Paterno seemed to be even harder given the unfortunate circumstances of the Sandusky scandal. Though the focus was on all the good Paterno had done, many students couldn’t help but lament the end of his storied career, which made the loss hurt just a little bit more.
“It’s a sad, sad day,” junior Nikki Opielowski of Pittsburgh said. “Not only the fact that he passed but just the way it all went down, the way his legacy and career was laid out at the end.”
Perhaps it is because of that end that many of those in attendance stressed the need to preserve Paterno’s true legacy.
“I think that it’s really important that we continue to remember him for his legacy and for the work that he did, for the giving that he’s done for the students and for what he’s meant in our hearts,” Harris-Moore said.
The task of passing on Paterno’s unrivaled legacy and upholding the many values he taught now falls to the Penn State community, and those in attendance seemed more than ready to keep Joe’s spirit alive.
As John Spadaro, a 1982 alumnus and board member of the Alle-Kiski Alumni Society, said, “We should not be discouraged by his death but encouraged by his life.”
We should, as Hileman said, honor Paterno by following in his footsteps. “Joe’s true story was that he made an impact,” he said. “My advice to you as students and alumni is to continue to make an impact.”
By the end of the vigil, all but a few candles had been extinguished by the wind, but it was clear that nothing could diminish the fire and strong ideals Joe had instilled in the current and former Penn State students, all of whom will say that the world was made a much better place because of his presence.
Joe Paterno will be sorely missed, and Penn State will never be the same.