STATE COLLEGE — At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, it was frigid outside. But that didn’t keep a couple hundred people from coming out for a vigil in Joe Paterno’s honor.
Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of Paterno’s death and Melinda Wright, who organized the vigil, said she did it to remember a hero.
“To people around here, Penn State is not just a school or team they root for, it’s a part of their identity,” Wright said. “It’s the greatest loss this community has ever known, and there is a state still in mourning.”
Four hundred and nine candles were lit in bags in front of the Inspiration Mural on Hiester Street. Those candles represented both the number of wins Paterno had as the Penn State football coach and the memories the Penn State community had of Paterno. Those memories were written on the bags encompassing the candles and later read out loud.
“They’re really beautiful stories,” Wright said.
Those stories were an expansion of the larger “Inspiration Way” project for a memorial brick walkway adjacent to the Inspiration Mural that encourages people to write a message about Paterno on a brick.
Michael Pilato, the artist behind the mural and a part of the Inspiration Way project, said both the vigil and the memorial brick walkway are a way to honor a Paterno for all the good he did in spite of negative attention.
“He was the kind of man who was not out to seek attention for himself and people were inspired by him,” Pilato said. “With this brick walkway, I think it’s a place were people feel like they’re being heard.”
Wright said the most touching story was from a former Penn State student who found out her father was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer several years ago. The girl remembered sitting in the middle of campus, shocked of the news, when Paterno came by, talked with her and later wrote her mother a note of his sympathy, Wright said.
“Her mother cherished the note until the day she died,” Wright said.
And examples like that are what Penn State student Sasha Scherlinsky said she remembers of Paterno.
Scherlinsky grew up in State College and said Paterno was not just the football coach, but the face of Centre County.
“It’s been different the last year,” Scherlinsky said. “We don’t have anyone in the community anymore who goes out of their way to show up at events and make something out of nothing.”
She attended the vigil with fellow freshman Ian Starner and wore a sticker tattoo on her face that said, “We love our Joe” — something that was once handed out at the local Dunkin’ Donuts and then discontinued.
“I had it for a while and can’t think of a better time to wear it than now,” she said.
“It’s terrible that he left with a ruined reputation and no longer remembered for all the good he did,” Starner added.
But Wright said “Inspiration Way” might be the next best thing to keep Paterno’s positive memory alive. The walkway will break ground this spring.