Pop music thumped out of speakers bathed by mobile floodlights as Penn State fans munched on subs, pretzels and cookies.
But it wasn’t a real party until Sue Paterno started rocking out.
Singing along to a pulsating tune, Paterno — the widow of Joe Paterno and a grandmother 17 times over — danced with a circle of students and the Nittany Lion mascot Friday during the annual Guard the Lion Shrine event, a highlight of homecoming weekend.
Afterward, she took the stage and joked with the crowd about needing a drink — of water.
“I haven’t had a workout like that in a while,” she said.
Before her appearance, the rally kicked off with performances by the Penn State Whiplash and Lionettes dance teams before fans young and old. Other revelers lined up at a buffet table for free food served by student organizers.
Nearby at the famous Lion Shrine, two Penn State Army ROTC cadets dressed in camouflage uniforms stood at parade rest, stone-faced and still like Buckingham Palace guards, taking a shift watching over the university icon.
They remained expressionless despite photographers taking close-ups and a steady stream of subjects posing for souvenir shots behind them.
Joyce Hauck, of New Columbia, took her turn by the lion. She’s in town for the game this weekend, visiting her grandson, Tristan Brosious, a freshman from Northumberland.
But she posed for another grandson, Garrett Hauck, who’s in the Air Force.
“He’s a big Penn State fan,” she said, laughing. “I wanted a picture just to send to him and make him jealous.”
About 15 minutes later, Paterno entertained the crowd by recalling her role in starting the modern-day tradition of guarding the statue.
Forty-eight years ago, she decided to become a vandal.
“When Joe became coach in ’66, I was trying to think of a way to get the fans more involved,” she said.
She hatched a plan and enlisted the help of Sandra Welsh and Nancy Radakovich, the wives of assistant football coaches. They sneaked out of a dinner, dabbed the lion with washable orange paint and fled in a getaway car so that Penn Staters would think that Syracuse fans had done the dirty deed.
The next day, they sweated the news that Penn State police were going to arrest the culprits. But at a dinner that night, Paterno learned to her relief that Syracuse fans were in custody. Early in the morning after the first painting, they had raided the shrine, covering it from head to tail in orange.
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s so wonderful,’” Paterno said, recalling her reaction to the news. “I can’t believe anybody would do that to the Nittany Lion.’ ”
Paterno then fired up the crowd even more for the game against Northwestern.
“Whether or not what we did had anything to do with raising fan base support for our football team or making our stadium more alive, I don’t know, but we eventually became the greatest show on earth,” she said to applause.
“And we’re only going to get better and better. I started at Penn State in 1958, and I have loved this place from the time I came here. And I will always love this place.”