Penn Staters shaken by abuse scandal seek solace together on game day

The blue-and-white faithful crowded into the CarPool bar and grill in Arlington on Saturday as if it were a revival meeting.

Baby-faced Penn Staters home on break, recent graduates and gray-haired alums, they settled onto bar stools and overran the billiards room, almost all of them clad in their school’s colors. Fixing their gaze reverentially on the football game beamed down from giant TV screens, they roared at every first down, every hard tackle, every score as their beloved Nittany Lions battled arch rival Ohio State.

And when at last it was over, when the final seconds ticked down a 20-14 Penn State victory, hundreds of PSU alumni filled the bar with a deafening cheer of communal identity, a cheer that can seem almost primal when sounded by 100,000 from the giant megaphone of Beaver Stadium in the cold mountain air of State College, Pa.

“WE ARE STILL PENN STATE!!!!”

After nearly two weeks of dealing with one of the worst scandals in collegiate history, these Washington area faithful still find themselves defending an entire community because of alleged actions — or acts of omission — not only by their beloved football coach Joe Paterno but also by officials they had never heard of. But the shock has begun to wear off. They feel less of a need to justify their love of their alma mater. They are seeking revival.

Their unusually close feeling of community was formed in the splendid isolation of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains. Now, isolated in the spotlight of notoriety, they seem to be regrouping and recommitting themselves to the search for grace through good works, such as the fundraising campaigns that surround Penn State’s legendary dance marathon.

“I think a lot of people are looking to take action,” said Kirsten Edling, 25, an Arlington County resident who graduated from Penn State in 2009 and works for a nonprofit. She wore a blue-and-white rugby shirt to the bar to watch the game with several college buddies and her husband, Steve, 26, a high school sweetheart who also attended Penn State. “I think everybody knows they can’t erase what happened. We’re moving forward — not forgetting it — but moving forward.”

With Washington just a few hours by interstate from Happy Valley, the city’s ranks of Penn State alumni include Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Bloomberg News columnist Margaret Carlson. Traditionally, a lot of alumni gather at one of about half a dozen favorite watering holes on Saturdays to watch Paterno’s student scholars play football. Now that Paterno has fallen from grace, many Penn Staters have felt even more in need of fellowship.

“We came in this time because we wanted to be with other Penn Staters,” said Tom Yorke, 69, who drove from Haymarket with his wife, Jeannie, 68. They have been together since they met on campus in the 1960s.

Yorke was among many alumni who worry that the scandal will tarnish their alma mater’s reputation for years, that recruitment for sports will suffer, that top scholars might take their talents elsewhere, or that alumni will be more reluctant to donate money. One current student said the scandal had already come up during a job interview.

Others were still touchy. They sound weary of the press attention, and one District bar said alumni had asked them not to allow media in for Saturday’s game. Some rose testily to defend Paterno, saying the winningest coach in Division I college football history had been hastily jettisoned before all the facts were in. They recalled their disbelief after a grand jury charged former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky with sexually assaulting several boys.

“At first it was, ‘Who’s Jerry Sandusky?’ ” said Steve Edling, 26.

But the panel also found that other ranking officials had done little to stop it, leading to the firing of several of them, including Paterno.

Penn State alumni, so deeply interconnected for professional networking, were flooded with startling updates through e-mails, Twitter feeds and Facebook posts. Some were convinced it was a trumped-up vendetta, perhaps some plot by all the PSU haters who were eager to deflate the image of a school that abided by a code of honor no longer fashionable at other campuses. Then shock that the university that had prided itself on “Success with honor” had been accused of coddling a child molester. More shock when some students rampaged during a rally to support Joe Pa, as Paterno is known.

Some professors canceled class or put aside the day’s syllabus to talk about what had happened. Students held candlelight vigils. Rivals at other schools rubbed schadenfreude into PSU’s open wounds.

“I got a lot of text messages from high school friends saying, ‘Ha ha — Joe Paterno is gone,’ ” said Erin Barsanti, 21, a senior from Vienna who was home on break.

Barsanti said she found herself crying with other students when Paterno’s dismissal was announced. But she said she also recognizes that though he may have been an icon, he made a terrible mistake.

“The more I read, the more I think he could have done more,” Barsanti said. Worse, she said, is to imagine what young victims have suffered.

The fallout since has barely let up. Moody’s, the credit rating agency, warned that the scandal’s fallout could depress donations and thus affect the university’s ability to borrow money. The NCAA has started an investigation into its athletic programs.

“It’s been a rough two weeks,” Kirsten Edling said. “I’ve had more people telling me, ‘Oh, you’re still wearing blue and white?’ ”

Edling didn’t even want to go to Penn State at first. She thought it was too big, too much of a jock school. Then she visited, and she was charmed. The place grew on her, year by year, until she recognized that the university had shaped her identity perhaps as much as any other influence in her life, particularly the school’s history of community service.

For example, before President Obama proclaimed that Martin Luther King Jr. Day should be a day of service, some Penn State students had already begun a service initiative called “Not a Day Off, but a Day On.”

But the most well-known event is Thon, a dance marathon for charity that has been around since a small group of students started the event in 1973. In 1977, Thon made the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital its sole beneficiary. The school says Thon has contributed more than $78 million to the fund.

Edling became one of Thon’s “family relations captains,” who assist the families that benefit from the Four Diamonds Fund. As winter sets in at the peak of fundraising for Thon, students go door-to-door collecting money — known as “canning” — no matter how little mer­cury is showing on the thermometer. Dozens of splinter groups have formed over the years to raise money for the event with pancake breakfasts and raffles.

Barsanti, who attended Oakton High School in Vienna, teamed with friends to create Pillar, a philanthropic organization that would unite students who were not in fraternities or sororities. So far, the group has raised more than $100,000 for Thon, she said.

“I don’t think people realize, unless you went to Penn State, how deeply it touches you,” said Erica Fetter, 25, of Arlington. Fetter, who graduated in 2008, talks like a Penn State shopaholic who has lost the battle trying not to buy more school-themed stuff: PSU blankets, snuggies, pompoms, dishes, mugs, towels and even a mini-statue of Paterno on her desk at the Department of Homeland Security. “And that’s not even getting into the clothing,” she said. “I have a Penn State everything.”

But the Joe Pa statue on her desk suddenly became a lightning rod.

“There was a guy who came up to me at work, and he said, ‘You should take all that stuff down. Joe Paterno’s in a lot of trouble,’ ” Fetter said. “There was one day it got so rough, I had to call Kirsten. You have to understand: Joe Paterno is like a member of the family. ’’

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