Penn State's Old Main lawn glowed with the light of trembling candles late Friday as several thousand students and alumni gathered to pray for the alleged victims of a child sex abuse scandal that has left an anguished campus searching for ways to heal.
The massive gathering outside of the university's administrative nerve center was the first step toward healing, said its organizers, who felt some on campus had lost sight of the scandal's greatest casualty, the eight boys former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has been charged with molesting over a 15-year period.
Jessica Sever, a senior public relations major who organized the candlelight gathering, said her classmates were yearning for something positive amid a torrent of negative publicity.
She was among the somber crowd that filled nearly the entire lawn, where another contingent rioted two days earlier after the university trustees fired iconic football coach Joe Paterno. Friday night's crowd numbered as many as 10,000 by some estimates.
"We do care about this, and we do care about what happened to the kids," said Blair Porterfield, a senior and State College native. "People think we care more about this messing up our football season, and I just don't think that's the case."
For Ms. Porterfield and others, the vigil -- where speakers aired their own experiences with sexual abuse and students shared in a moment of silence -- capped a week full of distractions. They sauntered to and from classes on a campus that held a markedly different atmosphere than the jovial one they're accustomed to on the eve of a home football game.
"You go to class, you do what you have to, but campus has a much more somber feel right now," Ms. Porterfield said.
Some professors have used class time to discuss the issues surrounding the scandal. Others have avoided it.
"It's kind of a personal issue," junior Nathan Hollister said before he lit a candle. "It's gotten so much attention, it's in you're daily life."
He listened as speakers on the building's steps urged those in attendance to find comfort in community and in Penn State's history of helping others, which they said is untarnished by recent events.
"I'm still proud to be a Penn Stater," said one speaker, a woman who described herself as a sex abuse survivor.
At the forefront of their message were the victims, named only by number in Mr. Sandusky's grand jury indictment. State police said they are fielding a number of calls from other potential victims whose accusations are still being vetted.
"These allegations of abuse are horrifying," Ms. Sever said. "The people who need our support the most are being overlooked by the entire frenzy."
A choir sang the school's song, and the crowd chanted "we are Penn State!" But the mood was far from that of a pep rally that normally would be held the night before the team's final home game against Nebraska.
"We really wanted to do something productive," said senior Tom Logiudice. Standing not far from him was Laura Bodenschatz, 40, whose daughter, Katrina, a freshman who grew up in State College, made baby blue ribbons and passed them out to support child sex abuse awareness.
"She's mourning," Ms. Bodenschatz said. "She's mourning the loss of Happy Valley and the loss of JoePa as an icon. But we have to make good out of a bad situation. We're starting the healing process, we're moving forward, and we'll be better in the end."
Sadie Gurman: email@example.com or 412-263-1878.