STATE COLLEGE —
The crowd gathered early in the freezing drizzle in the shadow of Beaver Stadium.
It was four hours before Thursday’s memorial service for the man who built this place, the man who packed this house with more than 100,000 people on fall Saturday afternoons, the man who, many said, was Penn State.
They laid flowers at the feet of a larger-than-life statue of the man. They left photos and caps and memorabilia. An American flag was draped over the statue’s right shoulder.
An Italian flag was hung below it. Candles somehow found a way to remain ignited in the steady cold mist. At the statue’s feet, someone had placed a 1.5-liter bottle of Old Grand Dad bourbon. The man liked his bourbon.
Deb Benigni, class of ’91, laid a bouquet of white roses and walked around the shrine. She and her friend, Jamie Johnson, class of ’96, had driven to State College from northern Virginia, four hours, to be here. There was no place else they’d rather be than standing out on the rain on a miserable January morning.
"I don’t know if you can put it into words," Benigni said. She took out her phone and opened up a photo of her, standing arm-in-arm with the man. She had the photo taken with him more than a decade ago. She carries it with her everywhere.
"That’s why we’re here," said Benigni, who works for the U.S. State Department, her eyes misting. "In this day and age, I don’t think there will ever be another like him. We were all his students."
Cindy Robertson’s daughter, Tiffany, was told in high school that she shouldn’t try to go to college, that she wouldn’t be able to cut it, particularly at a big school. She had a learning disability, and her high school guidance counselor told her that she would fall through the cracks at someplace like Penn State.
But she wanted to go to Penn State, her mother said. It’s a family tradition. Her father went to Penn State, as did her uncle. She made a lot of trips to Beaver Stadium with family for football games, and she loved the place.
One such trip, she got to meet the man, and she mentioned that she wanted to go to Penn State but that her teachers told her she couldn’t do it. The man told her, "Don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something."
She went to Penn State and graduated in 2006. She made the dean’s list. Now, she lives in Hershey and works at the Giant Center, staging concerts and other events.
"When she had a tough time, she always thought of his words," her mother said.
Thursday, Tiffany Robertson volunteered at the Bryce Jordan Center to help with the man’s memorial service. She told her mother, "I owe this to that man."