By Pat Loeb
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP/CBS) Joe Paterno’s death from lung cancer Sunday just two months after his firing left many Penn State students, alumni and community members numb with grief and a sense that the legendary coach deserved better from the university after such a distinguished career.
“His legacy is without question as far as I’m concerned,” said 65-year-old Ed Hill of Altoona, a football season ticket-holder for 35 years. “The Board of Trustees threw him to the wolves. I think Joe was a scapegoat nationally. … I’m heartbroken.”
On Sunday night, students began to gather in front of Penn State’s administration building for a candlelight vigil to remember Paterno. It was to be the first of many events honoring him; school officials said they are working on plans to commemorate his life and career.
In death, Paterno received the praise that under normal circumstances might have been reserved for the retirement dinner he never received.
Gov. Tom Corbett said he had secured his place in Pennsylvania history and noted that “as both man and coach,” Paterno had “confronted adversities, both past and present, with grace and forbearance.”
Similar tributes were issued by politicians, university officials, former players and alumni. Some expressed hope that Paterno would be remembered more for his accomplishments than for his downfall. And some wondered whether his heartbreaking firing somehow hastened his death.
Paterno, who died at 85, was fired Nov. 9 by the Penn State trustees after he was criticized for not going to the police in 2002 when he was told that former assistant Jerry Sandusky had been seen molesting a boy in the showers at the football complex.
Paterno reported the allegations to university higher-ups, but it would be nearly a decade before Sandusky was arrested, and Paterno said he regretted having not done more. Pennsylvania’s state police commissioner said the football coach may have met his legal duty but not his moral one.
On Sunday, Sandusky expressed sympathy to Paterno’s family in a statement released by his lawyer as he awaits trial on charges of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period.
Sandusky said that no one did more for the university’s academic reputation than Paterno, and that his former boss “had the courage to practice what he preached” about toughness, hard work and clean competition.
At an Iowa-Penn State wrestling match Sunday afternoon, a crowd of some 6,500 people gave a 30-second standing ovation as an image of Paterno appeared on two video boards. The screen flashed the words “Joseph Vincent Paterno 1926-2012” and a picture of a smiling Paterno in a blue tie and blue sweater vest.
At the university’s Berkey Creamery, Ginger Colon, of Fairfax, Va., was picking up two half-gallons of Peachy Paterno ice cream when she heard the news. Colon, whose daughter attends Penn State, said it was sad that the scandal would be part of Paterno’s legacy.
“But from a personal note, it makes you re-think when things are reported to you by employees: Have I taken enough steps?” Colon said.
Andrea Mastro, an immunology professor who lives in the same neighborhood where Paterno lived and raised a family – with his address and number, famously, listed in the phone book – said the rapid spread of the cancer and the shadow of the Sandusky investigation made “the whole situation very sad.”
“I can’t help but thinking that his death is somehow related” to the stress of the scandal, she said after Mass on Sunday at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, where Paterno sometimes attended services. “I think everybody is going to be extremely sad, and they’re going to be sad in particular because he didn’t get his say.”
Mickey Shuler, who played for Penn State under Paterno in the mid-’70s, said the coach had been a father figure and expressed his disappointment about how he was fired.
“It’s just sad, because I think he died from other things than lung cancer,” Shuler said. “I don’t think that the Penn State that he helped us to become and all the principles and values and things that he taught were carried out in the handling of his situation.”
Among those alumni with Joe Pa stories is Upper Darby councilman Ed Monaghan, class of ’90, who played offensive guard for the coach.
“He was a very tough person to play for, he was a disciplinarian, it was Joe’s way and that’s the way things were at Penn State, but I think the guys that played for him will tell you they’re better people today because of Joe,” said Monaghan.
The trustees and school President Rodney Erickson issued a statement saying the university plans to honor Paterno but is still working on what form that will take, and when it will happen.
In recent weeks, the board has come under withering criticism for how it handled Paterno’s dismissal, and there is a movement by alumni to change the board’s composition.
At a women’s basketball game Sunday, Penn State players wore a black strap on their shoulders in memory of Paterno.
“It’s been the first time I’ve ever seen a man guilty and have to be proven innocent,” said Jamie Bloom, a 1992 graduate from Williamsport. “I think they caved to the media pressure to do something.”
Ed Peetz, 87, a Class of ’49 alumnus whose daughter-in-law Karen Peetz was just elected president of the trustees, said the board had to dismiss Paterno.
“But then, and now, is a very sad day,” Peetz said. “What does Paterno mean to me? He means Penn State. But I think he was too powerful.”
Steve Wrath, a 1984 graduate, became emotional as he spoke outside the football stadium, in front of Paterno’s statue, which was adorned with lit candles, flowers, T-shirts and blue-and-white pom-poms.
“The Sandusky situation is obviously horrible for the victims, and I don’t want to little that situation, but Joe Paterno’s legacy will overcome all of that,” Wrath said.
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