December 17th, 2012

Billy Reed: the Sandy Hook Elementary Tragedy


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

Billy Reed: the Sandy Hook Elementary Tragedy
photo from / photo by Bob Luckey

Sorting through the aftermath of a national tragedy

Charlotte Bacon, 6; Daniel Barden, 7; Olivia Engel, 6; Josephine Gay, 7; Ana Marquez Greene, 6; Caroline Prevedi, 6…

As Scott Davenport was preparing to give his Bellarmine University basketball team its final instructions before Saturday night’s game against Nova Southeastern, the dressing room door opened and in filed a group of youngsters from one of the local parishes.

One of the many good things Davenport does at Bellarmine is open the locker room to youngsters. Maybe someday they will be good enough to play for the Knights and maybe not. But each of them got to see and hear and feel what it’s like to be on the inside of a college basketball team.

The kids stood in the back until Davenport told them to pile onto the big leather sofa that sits in a corner of the room. So there they were, eight or so boys looking on, behaving well, wriggling only a little, as they took it all in, their faces portraits of wonder.

It was a tableau worthy of Norman Rockwell’s paintbrush, and I watched with pleasure, as grandfathers are wont to do at times like this. And then it hit me like a thunderbolt: These boys were the same age, more or less, as the kids who had been senselessly and tragically slain in Newton, Conn., on Friday morning.

Dylan Hockley, 6; Madeleine Hsu, 6; Catherine Hubbard, 6; Chase Kowalski, 7; Jesse Lewis, 6; Jessica Rekos,; Benjamin Wheeler, 6…

The crime scene was the Sandy Hook Elementary School and that, too, was a bit surreal. On Wednesday, during a retirement luncheon in honor of my longtime friend Wayne Martin of WKYT in Lexington, I had been talking about another Sandy Hook with Rocky Adkins, majority leader of the Kentucky House of Representatives.

Rocky hails from Sandy Hook, Ky., and he was Wayne’s first recruit when Martin got the coaching job at Morehead State, his alma mater, in the early 1980s. When it was his turn to talk, Wayne talked about his confrontation with Rocky’s mother after the Eagles had lost to Indiana, 81-37, in Wayne’s first season.

“I was on the way out to do my post-game radio show when I felt somebody hitting me on the back with an umbrella,” Wayne said. “I turned around and it was Rocky’s mother. She said, “I didn’t come all the way up here to see my son sit on the bench!” That was a perfect end to the day.”

The tragedy could have happened at a Sandy Hook in Kentucky as easily as a Sandy Hook in Connecticut. That’s a part of the horror of it. Evil and madness respect no boundaries. They can appear at the most unlikely places: A movie theater in Colorado…a shopping mall in Oregon…a campus in Blacksburg, Va.

And lest anybody think that mass murder is a product of current times, I refer him or her to the Sunday in 1963 when four little black girls were killed in Birmingham, Ala., when their church was bombed by terrorists from the Ku Klux Klan. That still haunts Americans of a certain age to this day.

James Mattioli, 6; Grace McDonnell, 7; Emillie Parker, 6; Jack Pinto, 6; Noah Pozner,  Avielle Richman, 6; Allison Wyatt, 6…

I once worked with a man who lost a small child in a tragic accident. I went to the funeral and I’ll never forget the sight of that tiny coffin. And now we will see 20 of them in Newtown, Conn.

No matter how deep our faith, we will never be able to understand why a loving God allows such evil. But it is not our place to understand. That is beyond our pay grade. We can only pray and gather our loved ones closer and try to determine if anything can be done to make it more difficult for evil to do its work.

The coming days and weeks will tell much about the kind of people we are and want to be. What we know, for sure, is that our current gun laws are inadequate. Changes must be made. It should become every bit as difficult to buy a gun as it is to sneak one through airport security.

And surely we all can agree that assault weapons should be banned. When our founders guaranteed us the right to bear arms, they could no more imagine an AK-47 than a smartphone. These are killing machines made for war. They have no place in a civilized society.

We also should put more money into mental-health research and treatment. In the fight against mental illness, social workers are our first responders. We need more of them working to identify disturbed individuals and treat them before they have the chance to act out their weird fantasies.

I would ask the entertainment industry – Hollywood, TV networks, recording artists, and game manufacturers -- to accept responsibility for glorifying violence. We know it sells, the gorier the better, but that doesn’t make it right.

But, in the end, it’s not fair to single out Hollywood or the NRA or politicians. We all must accept responsibility for the culture that exists in our homes and communities. When children – babies, for heaven’s sake – are gunned down in cold blood in a school classroom, it should be unnerving to every decent, God-fearing person in this land. When our babies become victims, it’s personal.

Rachel Davino, 29; Dawn Hochsprung, 47; Anne Marie Murphy, 52; Lauren Rousseau, 30, Mary Sherlach, 56; Victoria Soto, 27; Nancy Lanza, 52.

God bless the teachers. We must never forget them. Today, especially in the public schools, the classroom work is only part of it. They’re required to be surrogate parents, social workers, counselors, drill sergeants, and mediators. And we all know how modest the pay is. I’ll bet the entire faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary doesn’t make what the University of Connecticut basketball coach makes in a month.

I saw a photo from the tragedy that should win a Pulitzer Prize – the one of the female teacher leading a horror-stricken line of children to safety. To me, that teacher is a symbol of teachers everywhere. They lead our children to enlightenment as a matter of routine; they lead them out of harm’s way when called upon to do so.

Before the Knights took the floor Saturday night, Davenport asked the kids to jump off the big sofa and join in the team prayer. They did, eagerly and joyfully. Little hands entwined with big ones…strong hands entwined with weak ones…hearts beating as one to the rhythm of a bouncing ball.

Some of the boys in the Bellarmine locker room wore shirts with the Bellarmine or Louisville logos on them. I wondered if any of the parents in Newtown, Conn., sent their child to school Friday wearing a UConn Husky T-shirt. In a very real sense, they are us and we are them.

We should not let this tragedy fade away. This must be the one where we draw a line in the sand and say, “Enough.” This must be the one where the politicians and lobbyists stop their posturing and name-calling. This must be the one where we check our partisanship and pettiness at the door and deal with the evil of violence in a serious way.

At Bellarmine on Saturday night, the locker-room visitors got a wonderful treat. Their new buddies executed Davenport’s game plan perfectly in the second half and pulled out to a 75-48 victory. During one spectacular 47-second stretch, the gifted Bellarmine star Chris Dowe threw down a tomahawk dunk off a steal, stuffed home another one off an alley-oop pass from Jelani Johnson, and swished a three.

After it was over, the children went home – hopefully to loving families and brightly lit Christmas trees. By the grace of God, nobody had to think about tiny coffins or Christmas gifts that will never be received.


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