NEW: Student, alumni hold a candlelight vigil
Paterno's son to fans: "He felt your support in his fight"
The iconic coach died Sunday at age 85
Paterno was fired over the handling of sex abuse claims against a former assistant
Penn State students and alumni held a candlelight vigil late Sunday to honor and remember Joe Paterno, the iconic former football coach.
Paterno, 85, died Sunday at a State College, Pennsylvania, hospital, according to his family. He had been suffering from lung cancer and had recently broken his pelvis.
“It is with great sadness that we announce that Joe Paterno passed away earlier today,” said the statement. “His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled.”
Students braved freezing temperatures to attend the vigil on the lawn of the Old Main building on Penn State’s campus. They held candles, locked arms, and sung the school’s alma mater to say goodbye.
Later, they walked over to a statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium, which has become a sort of makeshift memorial.
“He’s more than a coach; his family’s more than a family,” said Bethanna Edmiston, a local resident and alumna who met her husband at Penn State.
“It’s extremely difficult for the whole Nittany nation,” she said. “Unless you’re part of Penn State, you just don’t understand what it means.”
Earlier on Sunday, many fans were seen crying as they stood at the statue. It features Paterno with his index finger outstretched in the “No. 1” gesture. A quote from Paterno, who spent 61 years at Penn State, is on the wall behind the statue.
“They ask me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone,” the quote says. “I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.”
Edmiston said she moved to State College at age 8, as Paterno took the reins at Penn State.
“Our family thanks Penn Staters, students & all people for prayers & support for my Dad,” Paterno’s son, Jay Paterno, tweeted Sunday, “He felt your support in his fight.”
The gathering at the statue has been ongoing since Saturday night, after a family spokesman said Paterno’s condition had worsened.
Some shoveled snow so others could walk up and touch Paterno’s outstretched hand on his statue.
Signs, flowers and candles surrounded the statue, along with photographs of Paterno. “You’re our hero,” one said. Another one, flanked by candles, simply said: “Coach.”
Jay Paterno tweeted Saturday night that he drove by the statue, and that the love and support inspired his father.
“He died as he lived,” the family statement said. “He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been.”
Several websites that reported Saturday night that Paterno had died later apologized for the error, including the Penn State student news website Onward State, the first to report the erroneous information.
Paterno was fired in November amid outrage over the handling of accusations against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who faces more than 50 counts involving sexual acts with 10 boys since 1994. Sandusky has pleaded not guilty.
But several of those gathered at the statue Sunday remembered Paterno as a unifying presence both at the university and in State College.
“I want everyone in our whole country to know that Joe united us,” said Diane Farley, a Penn State alumna and current university employee. “And I don’t want anyone to point fingers at anyone anymore, and I want them to know that State College is a place that cares, because Joe cared, and there’s just been a lot of confusion in the past six weeks … We’re all on this Earth together. We’re all going to go out eventually, like Joe, and we need to be a little bit more loving and caring with each other.”
“They’re just ordinary people,” Edmiston said of the Paterno family. “They lived in the same house since they moved there, not a fancy house, just everyday people. They gave everything they had to Penn State – not only money, but their time, their efforts. It’s just an amazing legacy that he’s left behind.”
Another man said he doesn’t believe the scandal will tarnish Paterno’s memory. “It won’t define him,” said the man, who did not give his name. “It wasn’t who he was.”
The family previously said Paterno had a treatable form of cancer. In December, he was admitted to a hospital after fracturing his pelvis when he slipped and fell at his home in State College.
Under Paterno’s 46-year leadership, the Nittany Lions won two national championships, went undefeated five times and finished in the top 25 national rankings 35 times, according to his official Penn State biography.
At the time of Paterno’s dismissal, Vice Chairman of Trustees John P. Surma said he hoped the school’s 95,000 students and hundreds of thousands of alumni would believe the decision “is in the best long-term interest of the university, which is much larger than athletic programs.”
Paterno told the Washington Post this month he felt inadequate to deal with the initial allegation of abuse against Sandusky.
“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” Paterno told the Post. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
The former coach spoke with a raspy voice during the interview – Paterno’s first extensive comments since being fired.
A Penn State graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, told the grand jury late last year that he had seen Sandusky “with a boy in the shower and that it was severe sexual acts going on and that it was wrong and over the line.” He said he had gone to Paterno with what he saw.
Paterno said he’d never been told the graphic details revealed in a grand jury report, but that he nevertheless reported the allegations to his boss, then-Athletic Director Tim Curley.
Curley and Gary Schultz, a former university vice president, have been charged with perjury and failure to report the abuse allegations, which law enforcement did not learn about for several years. They have pleaded not guilty.
“You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said about McQueary. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it,” he told The Washington Post.
“I called my superiors and I said, ‘Hey, we got a problem, I think. Would you guys look into it?’ Because I didn’t know, you know … I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn’t feel adequate,” Paterno said.
“Joe was Penn State,” Edmiston said. “He made Penn State. And it’s really a very sad, sad day for all of us.”
CNN’s Sarah Hoye and CNN contributor Sara Ganim contributed to this report.