STATE COLLEGE, Pa (Reuters) - Ever since charges of child sex abuse against Jerry Sandusky tore a giant hole in Penn State’s heart, students, alumni and staff have grappled with how they could heal.
It is not easy, after the horrific crimes Sandusky is alleged to have committed came to light a week ago.
Nearly 10,000 came to the university’s Old Main hall on Friday night, braving the frigid mountain air to try and begin that healing process. Trying to smother the hate that has engulfed this sleepy Pennsylvania town.
Dustin Yenser, a 2007 Penn State graduate who now teaches middle school, spoke with raw emotion to the crowd of the pain he sees his university going through.
“We are Penn State, and we are hurt, and we are sorry,” Yenser said, his voice cracking and tears dripping onto his face. “The only thing that matters now is that we are here for the victims.”
Yenser and other speakers said the school must move forward, but never forget.
Prominent Penn State names such as former President Graham Spanier, Assistant Coach Mike McQueary, Athletic Director Tim Curley, finance official Gary Schultz and even legendary football coach Joe Paterno were not spoken. Some of these men had once been treated as near-deities, but all have been brought down by the scandal in the last week.
Determination, perseverance and charity were instead the champions of the night.
Students, some in shorts and sandals and others donning wool hats and parkas, stood solemnly in front of the old building clasping candles, sometimes repeating with thunderclap the school’s iconic chant: “We Are Penn State.”
They listened as one speaker told of her own experience being sexually abused as a child.
Another said Penn State must continue its history of supporting charities, including one that funds children’s cancer research.
Another painfully noted that Sandusky had deprived his victims of their innocence.
As an a cappella group sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a sea of bright candlelight engulfed the crowd and many hummed along.
Lavar Arrington, who played football at Penn State and in the National Football League, spoke of how the Sandusky allegations are a challenge the university must rise above.
“The worst crime for all of us would be to leave here and forget what happened,” Arrington said. “This is our call to duty.”
The vigil, he told those assembled, is the start of a new story for Penn State.
“It’s on us to renew the pride of Penn State,” he said. “I‘m not going to take that fight lying down.”
TJ Bard, the president of the undergraduate student body, said the vigil represented hope, not only for the victims, but for the battered school.
“We cannot let the actions of a few define us,” he said. “May we fight until no child is harmed again.”
As Bard finished his speech, the Old Main clock tower began to chime for the 10 p.m. hour.
The crowd stood in silence.
Quietly, with respect, the university’s marching bad played, “Alma Mater,” the school song.
The 110-year-old lyrics eerily warn someone like Sandusky should never be tolerated, a fact that did not go unnoticed as the crowd audibly grew louder for the line: “May no act of ours bring shame.”
It was, Alex Kolker said, a vigil to show the world Penn State supports the victims and is much more than just football.
“This is definitely a start in the healing process,” said Kolker, a junior.
The vigil ended with an a capella performance of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” a somber song that speaks of hope despite loss, aptly describing the mood on this campus.
“Tears stream down your face,” the a capella group sang, with the crowd joining along in unison. “I promise you I’ll learn from my mistakes.”
Reporting and Writing by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Greg McCune