Joe Paterno

A FINAL FAREWELL: Crowds gather in Happy Valley to say goodbye to beloved coach

The hearse carrying the casket of Joe Paterno drives along College Ave. in downtown State College, Pa., Wednesday, January 25, 2012.  A funeral procession left the pasquerilla spiritual center on the Penn State University and went through campus and town before ending at a cemetery.  Centre Daily Times/Nabil K. Mark
The hearse carrying the casket of Joe Paterno drives along College Ave. in downtown State College, Pa., Wednesday, January 25, 2012. A funeral procession left the pasquerilla spiritual center on the Penn State University and went through campus and town before ending at a cemetery. Centre Daily Times/Nabil K. Mark

For years, huge crowds filled Beaver Stadium to cheer for Joe Paterno. On Wednesday, they lined the streets of town and campus to say goodbye.

Thousands of alumni and fans filled the sidewalks of the Penn State campus and downtown State College to pay respects to the legendary football coach who stood for more than sports. Paterno died Sunday from lung cancer. On Wednesday after the procession, he was buried.

Linda Smith, a 1979 graduate whose husband went to Penn State and whose son is there now, was one of the alumni waiting in the fading afternoon sun for the procession.

“He was like part of the family,” said Smith, who lives in Doylestown. “He is the kind of human being everyone should aspire to be.”

The procession began at 4:15 p.m. after a private family service in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center.

About 15 minutes before that, eight pallbearers carried Paterno’s casket to a electric blue Cadillac hearse. Along Allen Road, onlookers six deep in spots watched as mourners filed out toward the waiting cars and buses, some stopping for embraces.

Penn State senior Maxwell Gorodesky had traded a class for a chance to witness a historic moment.

Gorodesky grew up in the King of Prussia area immersed in lore about Penn State and Paterno. His parents, four uncles and two aunts are graduates.

“This is something I didn’t want to miss,” he said.

Two blue Cadillac sedans led the hearse as the procession began down Allen, past throngs holding camera phones aloft, then turned left on Curtin Road in front of Paterno Library. A few people gave small waves.

The first seat on the team bus has always been Joe Paterno’s. But on Wednesday, that seat was for Sue Paterno.

As she and the rest of the procession cruised down Curtin, only the throbbing of helicopters overhead and the rumbling of engines broke the silence.

The Paterno family and football players arrived at the spiritual center around 1:15 p.m. on a blue school bus. Sue Paterno’s family arrived on a charter bus around the same time.

Numerous former players attended the private service: Franco Harris, Brandon Short, Ki-Jana Carter, Todd Blackledge, Matt Millen, Lenny Moore and Matt Suhey.

Nike CEO and Paterno friend Phil Knight attended as well as donor Anthony Lubrano, former athletic director Tim Curley, and Paterno’s assistant coaches including Tom Bradley, Galen Hall and Ron Vanderlinden.

Bradley walked down the sidewalk with Harris.

“Today’s Mass was a celebration. We laid to rest a great man,” Bradley said. “He meant so much to so many people.”

First in line for Wednesday’s public viewing was David Brown, who left his home in Greensburg at midnight and drove more than two hours to State College, then prepared to wait a few hours outside until the doors opened.

“I wouldn’t have been surprised if there were 1,000 people here,” he said.

Some who hoped to see Paterno’s casket Wednesday morning left disappointed.

University police closed the public viewing, scheduled to end at noon, a half-hour early at the Paterno family’s request. A viewing on Tuesday lasted 10 hours, drawing thousands, with long lines stretching down Curtin Road.

Outside Beaver Stadium, hundreds gathered along Curtin and Porter roads in anticipation of the procession.

Penn State students brought signs and banners that read “And JoePa said Let There Be White,” “Paternonater,” and “We Are because You Were.”

Crystal Evans, 46, snapped pictures of the signs.

“What you guys are doing is amazing,” she told the students.

Evans didn’t go to Penn State. But she’s been a fan of the football team for as long as she can remember, and drove from Huntingdon to take part in the memorial.

“I think we all needed this to help with our grieving process,” she said, “to pay our respects to a man who instilled morals and integrity in thousands of childrens’ lives. And he was a great football coach, too. But I’m here to celebrate the man.

Whit Watlington, 5, ran with a blue football outside Beaver Stadium as his 2- year-old brother, Miles, chased him.

They both sported khakis with rolled up pant legs. So did their 5-month-old brother, Monroe.

“Who rolls their pants up like that?” asked his mother, Becki Watlington.

“Coach Paterno,” Whit replied.

The idea occurred to Becki Watlington when she was helping her kids get dressed in the morning.

“This day’s for JoePa. It’s his day,” she said. “So that’s our tribute.”

Inside Penn State All- Sports Museum at Beaver Stadium, students and fans wrote small tributes to Paterno on pieces of paper, cut in the shape of his trademark thick-framed glasses

“Joe is an inspiration to everyone in ... the Penn State family! Joe made us Penn State!” read one.

“Here’s Looking At You JoePa — Always Look Down On Us and PSU” read another.

William Hill, 79, of Selinsgrove, lit a candle next to the bronze Joe Paterno statue at Beaver Stadium.

“We’ll never forget him,” said Hill, who made the trip with his 61-year-old son, Bob Hill. “He’s etched in our minds.”

Here’s one of those memories etched in their minds:

In 1968, two years after Paterno became head coach, Bob Hill was a student at an Allentown branch campus.

“My mother wrote a letter to Joe Paterno, because I had played football in high school, and she said that in two years I’d be out here,” Bob Hill said. “And I’m sure he got a thousand of those letters every year from mothers.”

But Paterno sent a letter of his own back.

“It was handwritten from him,” said Bob Hill, choking up. “But he wrote her, that tell your son, make sure he does his studies and if he gets up here in two years, we’ll welcome him.”

Bob Hill never made it to Penn State as a student. He quit college after one semester and took a job working construction. But he’s always appreciated that letter.

“That was just amazing. All the time that he coached this football team and to maintain those standards through the years — I thought was exceptional,” Bob Hill said.

Amy Comiskey drove with her husband and two small children from York on Wednesday morning to say goodbye to a personal hero she once caught off guard.

While at Penn State, the 1997 graduate worked in the football team dining facility. One night, she was a hostess for a team dinner, in charge of greeting recruits, their families and coaches. After a while, along came Paterno.

“Before I could say a word, he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t have a jacket. Can I come in anyway?’ ” Comiskey recalled.

Thinking quickly, she replied: “I’m sorry, sir, but this dining hall is reserved for football only.”

That stopped Paterno for a second. Then, playing along, he grinned.

“He put his arm around me and gave me a little shake and said, ‘You do know who I am, don’t you?’ ” she said.

If she has any say, her two children, Rocco, 4, and Martia, 3, will know. Two weeks before Paterno lost his position in November he sent her the two helmets she had asked him to sign. Now they’re family heirlooms.

“They are priceless,” Comiskey said. “We will use them as something to keep in the children’s bedrooms to tell them the story about Penn State and about Joe Paterno, not about the football coach he was but about the man he was.”

Allison De Almeida, a freshman, was downtown with her mother and aunt, Ann Marie De Almeida and Marisa Reynolds, both Penn State grads. They waited on East College Avenue with a “We are ... Penn State” banner.

“The football was the fun part, but there was so much more,” said Ann Marie De Almeida, of Virginia.

“But he was a pretty good coach too,” said Reynolds, of South Carolina.

The two drove up together to be at the event. They said Paterno was like a father to them, someone who has always been part of their lives.

Allison De Almeida said he was so important because of his values and integrity and that he was true to his own heart.

“It’s a tough time to be a student, but I feel blessed because I got to see the outpouring of love for JoePa and the Penn State spirit,” she said.

Lighted signs on passing CATA buses were alternating between flashing the bus’s destination and the words “Paterno proud.”

Those buses couldn’t make it through the crowds that filled the street corners and poured out into the streets as the procession neared.

In front of the Allen Street gates, alums Anne and Larry Barasch, of Mount Lebanon, staked out a spot on the edge of the sidewalk. Anne Barasch held a bouquet of white carnations with blue on the tips to toss out.

The two came to honor Paterno’s dedication to Penn State, where they met in 1976.

Larry Barasch, a former Blue Band member, remembered a brief encounter with Paterno near West Halls. Barasch said he offered a hello and Paterno responded, asking what his major was and telling him to keep studying.

Anne Barasch chimed in: Paterno “wasn’t a celebrity. He was, but he wasn’t. He was always approachable.”

Larry Barasch noticed the crowd thickening to several people deep in front of The Corner Room and inching off the sidewalk onto South Allen Street. Police officers motioned the crowd to keep back, but more and more jockeyed for the best vantage point.

People had climbed atop the wall around the gates for a bird’s-eye view. Others peered around a CATA bus to see if the procession was near.

“This is the legacy,” Barasch said.

Sam Mattiola, a freshman who watched the procession on campus, said students linked arms as it passed.

“It’s pretty special,” he said, especially because of everything Paterno did for Penn State apart from football.

“I think the only thing he wouldn’t have liked is that we didn’t go to class to be here,” he said.

CDT staff writer Jeff Rice and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Paterno was buried in Pine Hall Cemetery, based on a report by the Associated Press.