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Joe Paterno's statue fuels debate on Penn State campus

A statue of former Penn State head football

A statue of former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno stands outside Beaver Stadium on the Penn State campus in State College, Pa. (July 19, 2012) Credit: AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bouquets of flowers and homemade signs of support adorn the feet of the larger-than-life statue of Joe Paterno here on the Penn State campus.

"Due process is due Joe!"

"Remember: He was a man. Not a God!!!"

The scene has greeted the droves of people who each day visit the statue, the impromptu spot for Penn Staters to gather to mourn the shattered legacy of their longtime football coach.

Tucked into the arm of the statue is a folded handwritten letter addressed to Paterno from "a 17-year-old Penn State fan" in which he calls Paterno, "a victim of the times." The letter adds, "No matter how it looks like from heaven, we still love you."

Pressure began mounting on the university to remove the statue after former FBI director Louis Freeh's report found that Paterno and other top school officials "repeatedly concealed critical facts" about former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of children to avoid "bad publicity."

The independent 267-page report was funded by the school and was the result of an eight-month investigation. Freeh and his team interviewed over 430 people and examined more than 3.5 million emails and other documents.

Since the report was released on July 12, people have been coming in waves to take pictures with the statue.

Dazed and confused

As the crowd gathers, they often wind up talking, reminiscing and even crying about the one thing they share -- their connection to Paterno.

"I fear the university is tainted forever," said Ron Hoffnagle, 67, of York, Pa. "When people hear Penn State, they used to think Joe Paterno. Now they're going to think something else."

"I love Joe, always will," said Beth Pfeiffer, 53, of State College, who once worked in the campus library that's named for Paterno. "I wish he had the opportunity to defend himself. Joe has no voice."

Paterno died in January. He was fired on Nov. 9, 2011, days after Sandusky, his longtime assistant coach, was arrested on charges that he sexually abused young boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts last month and awaits sentencing, facing up to 442 years in prison.

The report that said Paterno played a leading role in a cover-up -- choosing to protect his program over the potential safety of young boys -- goes directly against everything Paterno said he stood for in life. His football program prided itself on high graduation rates and winning with honor. That's why it has been especially tough for his supporters to accept that Paterno played a role in one of the biggest scandals in sports history.

"No way I believe that," said Sharon Hambric, 53, of Birmingham, Ala. "No way, no, absolutely not."

Added John Grieco, 55, of Johnstown Pa., "I don't want to believe that. I can't comprehend how anyone would do that. Especially Joe."

The statue debate

As people took turns posing for photographs Tuesday morning, a small plane circled overheard, carrying a banner that read, "Take down the statue or we will." The plane returned on Wednesday. And then Thursday, too.

A university spokesman said a decision on the statue's fate will be made in the next week, and even those who came to visit the statue -- most of whom were Paterno supporters -- were split on what should happen.

While some remain adamant that it should stay, others believe the statue of Paterno, which was erected in 2001, now sends the wrong message to the community.

"The problem is if the statue stays, it becomes representative to some people of condoning sexual abuse of children," said Brandon Joseph, a 21-year-old Penn State senior from Central Islip. "You also look at this and you see a man who had the power to be a voice and he didn't use that voice to put this to rest."

Complicating matters is the quote attributed to Paterno that is plastered on the brick wall behind the statue. It reads: "They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place. Not just that I was a good football coach."

Paterno did do a lot of good for the university; officials have said he's donated millions, especially to the library. But his followers are having a difficult time with the Freeh report's findings.

Chris Durant, a 20-year-old Penn State senior from Huntington, said a lot of students feel "sucker-punched" by the report of a cover-up. That response is a far cry from the student-body's reaction to his firing last November, when hordes of students flocked to his front lawn, cheering his name.

Students, professors, alumni and fans have been among those who visited the statue this week, and many from all walks often have the same initial response upon arrival -- where's the security presence at the statue?

"They need to take the statue down and put it in a museum or someplace where it can be protected," said Tom Knauff, 74, of Julian, Pa. "Sooner or later someone is going to do something evil to it."

A group of students have responded to the plane-carrying threat to take down the statue by setting up camp in the evening hours, sleeping in tents around it to protect it from potential harm by outsiders.

Of course, camping out is nothing new to Penn State students. They do it before every home football game for the rights to the first-come, first-serve seats in the student section.

It's a practice that's been taking place since 2005, run by a student organization known until recently as "Paternoville." On Monday, however, the students responded to the findings in the Freeh report that said Paterno had a role in a cover-up by changing the group's name to the more generic "Nittanyville," named after the school's nickname, the Nittany Lions.

The next day a new handwritten sign had appeared at the feet of Paterno's statue: "This will always be Paternoville."

"I think the statue will stay and I think it needs to stay," said Alice Pope, 55, of Brooklyn. "We haven't sorted it all out yet. To have a fit of emotions and take the statue down just to try to erase all of Joe Paterno's life because he is flawed is a mistake . . . It's not like the problem will go away if we take Joe off the sidewalk."

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