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Thousands gather to get a glimpse of Joe Paterno funeral procession

By John L. Micek and Andrew McGill, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) –

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — As the hearse bearing Joe Paterno passed through the community he called home for more than a half-century, thousands of people, each in his or her own way, gathered to say goodbye.

(PHOTO: The hearse carrying the casket of Joe Paterno drives along College Avenue in downtown State College, Pennsylvania, Wednesday, January 25, 2012. A funeral procession left Penn State University and went through campus and town before ending at a local cemetery.)

Students, standing on a balcony overlooking the processional route through downtown State College, hung a hand-lettered “We Love You, Joe” sign from its railing. More than one man wore high-water trousers, white socks and black shoes — a Paterno trademark. Others just stood silently, content just watching Paterno’s casket pass slowly by.

“Everybody here feels like they have a hole in the heart,” said Nancy Sopko, a nurse from Allentown and one of several generations of her family who attended Penn State. “Joe Paterno was Penn State.”

About 4:15 p.m. EST the funeral procession left the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, a religious sanctuary the Paterno family helped build and worshiped in every Sunday. It wound down Curtin Road, past the Pattee-Paterno Library and on to Beaver Stadium before making its way west up College Avenue and into the heart of the town.

At the stadium, anticipation grew as news helicopters hovered closer and the police officers pushed back the crowd. When the hearse and team buses came into view — with a widowed Sue Paterno waving from a window — the crowd broke into applause.

“You are!” one man shouted to the departing hearse. “Penn State!” the crowd answered. It was a concession that could only be made for Paterno, who would have undoubtedly preferred the ubiquitous chant remain: “We are! Penn State!”

As the convoy rounded the bend beside Beaver Stadium, students held up a hand-painted banner: “We are because you were.”

On a 36-degree day, Penn State fans from all walks of life stood four deep on the sidewalks of State College to watch the funeral procession for Paterno, 85, who died Sunday after a two-month-bout with lung cancer and a deep internal struggle with his conscience following the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal last November.

But the mourners who packed the streets Wednesday and stood in line for hours for a public viewing on Tuesday and Wednesday were less focused on the scandal that ended the famed coach’s career and more on what they said was the example and inspiration he provided during a 46-year head coaching tenure that included two national championships.

“How do you explain caring for a man you never met?” asked Frank Cannon, a 1995 Penn State graduate from Old Bridge, N.J., “He stood for a lot of good things. Not just football.”

Others focused on the role the university’s weekend culture of tailgating and camaraderie had played in their lives. Charlie DiGiovanni, his wife Michele, and a friend, Mike Eckenrode, all alumni, warmly recalled bonding over football games.

“It’s a very heartfelt thing for me,” Michele DiGiovanni, of Havertown, Delaware County, said. “It’s something that never would have happened outside the house that Joe built.”

Added Charlie DiGiovanni, “I still bleed blue and white.”

Eckenrode, of Quakertown, said he took two days off from work to travel to State College. Eckenrode sent his two sons to Penn State: One has graduated and the other is a senior.

“I had my disagreements with Joe over the years,” he said, “(but) I needed to say goodbye.”

Still, people wrestled with Paterno’s role in a scandal in which he was accused of failing to take sufficient action after hearing an allegation that Sandusky, his one-time assistant coach, had molested a boy in a campus shower. Rather than contact police, Paterno passed the information on to two other school officials for investigation. The board of trustees fired Paterno in November, contending he did not do enough.

Paterno “got the shaft,” said Don Arsenberger of York, an Army veteran whose two daughters attend Penn State. “In the Army, you follow the chain of command and that’s what he did.”

Among the mass of students lining Paterno’s processional path, there were few hard feelings.

John Tecce watched from outside a single tent pitched outside the stadium’s student entrance. A longtime resident of “Paternoville,” the tent city that springs up outside stadium gates before most home games, he’d camped out countless times with dozens of fellow students. Now the president of the Paternoville Coordination Committee, he set up the tent as a monument to the tradition made possible by the coach he was watching pass by.

Afterward, he linked arms with Paternovillers outside Beaver Stadium’s Gate A and led a sharing of memories of Paterno as students signed a T-shirt to leave at his statue. They are among the last students who can say they watched the legendary coach walk the sidelines.

“Cherish that and cherish the fact you were here for that,” he said. “There’s not a group of people I’d rather be here with.”

Earlier in the morning, student, alumni and notables alike lined up for the final hours of Paterno’s public viewing. Exiting the chapel, former player D.J. Dozier, who scored the winning touchdown in Penn State’s 1987 national championship Fiesta Bowl victory over Miami, called Paterno a great coach who “wanted us to succeed on and off the field.”

“We know we have to pick up the baton … and live his legacy,” he said.

Actor William Baldwin was swarmed by reporters and fans as he left the spiritual center. The actor said Paterno taught his players “to be men of honor. And while his on-field achievements are important, Baldwin said Paterno’s true legacy lay with the young lives he shaped.

Stephen Molitierno was the last visitor to pay his respects to the late coach, slipping out as police locked the chapel doors behind him.

Like most of the thousands who waited hours in line, he never knew Paterno personally. Indeed, the closest interaction the 1977 graduate ever had with the coach was seeing him leave a bank. But he still got up Wednesday morning, put on his suit and drove from Pittsburgh to wait an hour and a half in line to see the closed casket.

“How do you not show up for something like this?” he asked.

Former player Jimmy Cefalo, a standout receiver from 1974 to 1977, was one of the final players to stand guard over Paterno’s casket, watching well-wishers file by. Even a woman supporting herself on two canes found a way to kneel in respect, he said.

“You could tell how much it meant for her to be there,” said Cefalo, who will speak at the third and final memorial event Thursday. “It’s difficult to think of a world without Joe.”

The Nittany Lion icon will be honored in a public memorial service starting at 2 p.m. Thursday at the 16,000-seat Bryce Jordan Center on campus.

Tickets for Paterno’s memorial became available online at 10 a.m. EST Tuesday. By 10:15, the athletic department said they had all been snatched up. Word circulated online and on Twitter that the tickets had actually sold out in about 40 seconds.

The school said all 10,000 available seats were claimed within about seven minutes. The tickets were distributed free through the athletic department website with a limit of two tickets per person.

Some quickly found their way into scalpers’ hands, with pairs of memorial tickets selling for as much as $200 on eBay an hour after the distribution. The online auction site pulled down those ads because it does not allow the sale of tickets for free events.

In lieu of flowers or gifts, the family requests that donations be made to the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania or THON, a children’s charity run by Penn State students.

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