STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — 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.