MONT ALTO, Pa. — Few, if any, of the Penn State Mont Alto students gathered for a candlelight vigil Sunday night had met Joe Paterno.
Gusts of winter wind threatened to extinguish their flames as they shared thoughts regarding a man they called an icon, a father figure and a legend.
Paterno, the college’s head football coach from 1966 to 2011, died Sunday at age 85 from lung cancer.
“Our university is changed because of him, and I’m proud to go to Penn State,” said Chelsea Pittman, a sophomore from Chambersburg, Pa.
Pittman, a human development and family studies major, was one of the students who pulled together the memorial in about 10 hours. While unplanned as such, their 8 p.m. event coincided with a similar one held at the college system’s main campus in State College, Pa.
Penn State Mont Alto has 1,200 full- and part-time students, and is one of the university system’s 20 campuses.
“We’re all one family,” Pittman said.
Fabulous Flores, a freshman communications major, said she hoped people who typically have different interests and social circles would come together as one community in remembering Paterno.
Flores, who lives in Italy, said her mother was one of Penn State’s first black cheerleaders. Her mother told her daughter about Paterno’s down-to-earth personality and kindness.
Flores lamented the fallout from a former assistant coach being criminally charged with sex crimes last November.
“Now that I go to this school, I think it’s really sad that after his name was dragged through the mud, everyone loves him,” she said of public reactions to Paterno’s death.
Before the service began, agricultural education major Sean Jones punched holes in plastic cups that could shield candles from the night air.
“I think it was important (to hold the event) because he was like a father figure to most of us,” said Jones, who is from Philadelphia.
Penn State Mont Alto’s 18-member cheerleading squad was in attendance. Those women said Paterno shaped the university and was a great man.
Ice-covered snow crunched under their feet as almost 100 people walked from Wiestling Student Center to a Nittany Lion statue. The group sang “Amazing Grace” and the college alma mater, held a moment of silence and twice broke out into the school’s “We Are ... Penn State” chant.