Westport’s RTM — the Representative Town Meeting — usually tackles local topics. Our elected officials debate and vote on budgets, contracts and sewers.
Sometimes they decide huge Westport questions. The RTM okayed the town’s purchases of Longshore, Cockenoe Island and Winslow Park.
Every once in a while, the RTM ventures onto national turf.
In 1972 — following a petition signed by 1000 residents, and a 3-hour debate — the RTM endorsed a resolution calling on President Nixon and Congress to “take immediate action to withdraw from the war in Vietnam.” The vote was 17 to 15.
In 1982 the RTM passed a Sense of the Meeting Resolution urging the US and Soviet Union to agree to a nuclear arms freeze. That vote was 24 to 2, with 7 abstentions.
On Tuesday, January 8 (7:30 p.m., Town Hall), the RTM will discuss this item:
To take such action as the meeting may determine, upon the request of at least 20 electors of the Town of Westport, for the RTM to place an item on an upcoming agenda … involving a request to support gun control legislation in the United States and urge the President and federal legislators, as well as Connecticut state legislators, to enact a ban on automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips. Furthermore, to support closing the “gun-show loophole” that allows people to buy guns at trade shows and from private dealers without background checks.
That discussion will not be about guns themselves; its focus is whether the RTM should discuss the topic at an upcoming meeting.
If recent comments on “06880” are any indication, both sides will come out firing.
John and Sophie are longtime Westporters. In the late 1990s their son Justin was a Staples athlete — and Block “S” winner. Today he lives in a group home. His life has been shattered by mental illness — a horrible disease that has affected his entire family.
John and Sophie have been upfront with friends and neighbors about Justin’s illness. However, to protect their son’s privacy, all names are aliases. Here is their story.
“I feel like I lost my child some time ago,” Sophie says. “He is physically alive, but he’s not the Justin he was, or would have developed into. He was such a different person in high school.”
Loss and grief are always with Sophie. But certain events — like the Newtown killings — brings those emotions closer to the surface.
Sophie believes there is more to Adam Lanza than the label “autistic.” “Was there ever a professional assessment?” she wonders. “Autistic people don’t typically react violently.” She thinks there was much more going on in his life.
When she hears that Adam Lanza spent 2 years in his mother’s basement, spiraling downward, Sophie can relate. “People can’t control things that are in their head,” she says.
As a Staples senior, Justin told his parents that he could no longer concentrate. He thought he had ADD. Tests showed he did not. Instead, he was distracted by thoughts and voices.
“Adolescence is a time of change. You experiment with new friends, and doing things in different ways,” Sophie notes.
“Justin had been a good kid. But every kid needs to separate from his parents, rebel, be assertive. It was hard to tell what was mental illness, and what was age-appropriate behavior.”
Sophie’s sister developed schizophrenia at 20, so she worried about Justin. When she asked directly if he heard voices, he denied it. Eventually, he told her he was having “conversations” with people in his head.
The voices grew stronger. Justin felt “spirits” inhabited his body. He was afraid they would “jump” to his parents and siblings.
Justin decided to commit suicide. That way, he thought, the spirits would die with him. But he believed in reincarnation, so he would be okay. One winter day, he was talked down from the George Washington Bridge. He later said he was glad to be saved.
By that point, he’d already been hospitalized. He’d also run away.
“It’s hard for anyone to accept that they have a chronic major illness,” Sophie says. “It’s especially tough with something that affects your mind.
“The mind is the last bastion. It controls everything. You can lose your limb, and get along. But if you lose your brain, what do you do?”
Professionals spent years finding the right combination of drugs — ones that made Justin feel better, without side effects.
It took Justin years to accept that he cannot work, or live on his own. He’s been in a couple of different group homes.
“He has problems in large groups of people,” Sophie says. “He thinks they’re saying bad things about him. He’s afraid for his life every day. It’s a constant battle.”
“He was social, he had great friends,” John adds. “And now it’s very hard for him to be with people. He doesn’t remember being well-liked, or a good athlete. The past he remembers is not the one we know he had.”
He has not been back to Westport for 5 years. Too many places hold “psychotic memories of bad things he thinks happened here,” his father says. “This is a hostile place for him.”
The more he stays in one place, the more fearful he becomes. That’s why he’s lived in several different residential facilities.
Fear is a major component of mental illness, John explains. “When we see people sleeping outside in cities, that’s because they’re so scared of being inside. How can we protect people like that?”
Justin, he says, is very lucky. “He is very loved, and he is provided for. He has supervisors, and professionals who can provide activities and discuss his fears. He has some quality of life.”
Justin’s days follow a pattern. He gets up, and goes downtown for coffee and cigarettes. He returns to his facility for group meetings and chores. He’s usually in bed by 9.
Justin’s care is very expensive. His family has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his care. Eventually, the funds will run out.
Sophie knows that Justin is one of the “lucky” ones, because he is loved and cared for. Her family is “extraordinarily lucky,” because they can take care of him. She worries about all those suffering from mental illness who do not have the resources and opportunities her son does.
John believes the Newtown murders will advance the discussion of mental illness. However, he wonders how much the “understanding” of it will change. “People like to throw labels around,” he notes.
“It’s easy to put people in a box, categorize them,” Sophie says. “It makes you feel safe. But mental illness is complicated. The more people talk about it, and see the complexity of it, the more they may ‘get it.'”
Living with a mentally ill family member is, she says, “a long slog.” By telling their story, she hopes, people will understand her son and his disease — and all others suffering from and affected by it — just a little bit better.
Like everyone else, Jennifer Huettner agonized last Friday. As the news from Newtown went from awful to unfathomable, she had special reason to worry.
Jennifer is Staples High School’s beloved, energetic Latin teacher. But for 11 years, starting in 1999, she taught at Newtown High School. She lives just minutes from the town, and remains closely connected to it.
After lunch on Friday — she ate alone in the language lab — someone said Ryan Lanza was the killer. Jennifer could not believe the news. She’d taught him for 4 years. “He’s a gentle soul,” she says. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
New information soon named Ryan’s brother Adam as the murderer.
Jennifer spent 3 years as Adam’s teacher.
Jennifer Huettner. Her green ribbon honors Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“He had Asperger’s,” Jennifer says, confirming media reports. After being home schooled in 7th and 8th grades, Adam took freshman classes in a portable classroom at the high school. He was 13 years old.
“He didn’t want to be around people,” Jennifer explains. “Our goal was to get him back in the building.”
Adam’s mother Nancy would drop him off, then sit in the next room while Jennifer worked with him.
“He was very OCD. He’d clean the desk with Purell,” Jennifer remembers.
“He had a great ‘Latin mind.’ The language is very structured, and that fit well with him. He always knew the answers — but he wouldn’t say anything.
“The day he made his first joke, I almost cried.”
The next year, Adam moved into the high school building.
The photo of Adam Lanza, seen around the world.
“He trusted me,” Jennifer says. “He started talking — that was a big thing. And he looked at me, with big eyes.” They were not the same eyes, she says, that the world has seen in “that horrible picture.”
Every day as a sophomore “he wore the same uniform: a blue shirt and khaki pants. He probably had 5 sets of them. The next year, it was a green plaid shirt.”
And — as Newtown students have reported — he always carried a briefcase.
“The hallways were narrow. It was difficult to walk through,” Jennifer says. “Adam would have his shoulder against the wall, with his briefcase out to protect him. He always took the same route, and never deviated from it.”
But, Jennifer says, “I never saw him lose it, or have a tantrum.”
Newtown students — like those she knows now at Staples High — are “very respectful of differences,” she says. “There was never any meanness or bullying. They’d ask Adam to sit with them.”
After 3 years Adam left Newtown, to take classes at Western Connecticut State University. Jennifer says he earned his GED there.
“I understand he dropped out of WesConn after 2 years,” Jennifer continues. “Then he sat in his basement for 2 years. Something happened.”
The Newtown High School logo.
The Adam Lanza who killed his mother, 20 children and 6 adults — and then himself — “was not the Adam I knew,” Jennifer says. “It was very disturbing to hear he’d done this — to realize the impact he had on the world. I have no idea where this awful, horrible thing came from.”
Jennifer knew Adam’s mother Nancy, too. “She dragged me to Red Sox games — even though I’m a Yankee fan,” Jennifer says. “She always got great seats.” They went to New York together too.
Jennifer knew that Nancy grew up on a New Hampshire farm. But, Jennifer says, she never talked about guns.
As difficult as the past week has been, Jennifer has been buoyed by her classes. She told her Latin 4 students — ones she’s had for her 3 years at Staples — that she taught Adam, and that when she knew him, he wasn’t the monster he’s being portrayed as. They hugged her.
On Tuesday, when the “Good Morning Staples” TV show broadcast an emotional interview with 2 Newtown High students, Jennifer “bawled like a baby.” Senior Joe Greenwald immediately embraced her.
Staples High School, earlier this week.
Jennifer loves Staples High School — and Newtown High. On Wednesday she did what she’s done for years: drove there to time a basketball game.
It was the Nighthawks’ 1st contest since the tragedy. Before tipoff, the gym was filled with hugs.
As friends and colleagues told Jennifer about the overwhelming support they’ve received from around the world, she cried with them.
The next morning, she was back teaching at Staples High School.
“I love Latin,” Jennifer says. “I love it here, and I love Newtown. Then I close my eyes, and I see the horror that went on last week. But I open them, and I know I have to be here for my kids.”
Just as she has been throughout 3 decades as a teacher. And as she was, for 3 years, for a student named Adam Lanza.
No matter what you thought when you saw the headline above — fist-pumping agreement, or blood-boiling anger — read this about the author of today’s post. He’s a Westporter — but his back story may surprise you.
Dave Stalling — a 1979 graduate of Staples High School — moved to Montana in 1986, after serving in a Marine Corps Force Recon unit. He has degrees in forestry and journalsim, has worked for several wildlife conservation organizations, served as president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, and worked to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” through the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. He is an avid hunter and angler, and a passionate advocate for wildlife conservation and gay rights.
The recent school shooting in Newtown overwhelms the ability of my heart, mind and emotions to even comprehend. When I went to Staples High School in the 1970s, such a thing was unheard of.
Yet guns were prevalent in our society. I had one: a shotgun to hunt ducks and pheasants. Before I was trusted with it, I took an NRA safety course — back when the NRA focused on responsible, proper handling and storage of guns, and worked in a nonpartisan manner to protect reasonable gun rights. It was before they turned into a radical, uncompromising, extreme right wing branch of the GOP.
I keep hearing the tiresome old NRA cliché: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people!” Which is inevitably followed by arguments of how dangerous baseball bats and knives can be, “yet no one is calling on banning them.” But when was the last time a sick and twisted person walked into a school or a movie theatre and was able to quickly kill a lot of people with a baseball bat or a knife? It takes a semi-automatic or automatic weapon to pull such a tragedy off – the kind of weapon designed to kill people with no legitimate purpose outside of the military.
I became pretty proficient with powerful and dangerous weapons while serving in a Marine Corps Force Recon unit. They are tools of war. It’s ridiculous to think citizens should have a right to possess such weapons.
Dave Stalling and his son Cory.
Perhaps it’s not the “weapons” that kill people, but I assure you from my experience you can fire a lot more rounds more quickly, and kill a lot more people more quickly, with a 7.62 mm M60 machine gun than, say, my 7mm-08 bolt action hunting rifle. That is why Marines and soldiers are issued and trained to use more proficient tools of the trade. And why nobody walks into a school or movie theatre and kills a whole bunch of people with a baseball bat or knife.
I hope I never lose the right to keep the rifles and shotguns I use for hunting. I keep them locked in a secure safe at all times, unloaded (and separate from the bullets and shells) where only I can get access to them.
After I left the Marine Corps and moved to Montana, I found elk hunting to be a good, sustainable way to live in that part of the world. But I never had the need or desire to own semi-automatic and automatic rifles designed to efficiently kill lots of people quickly.
The only people I’ve met who have such weapons seem to do it for their egos, to brag about, to feel more manly, or to “defend” themselves from a government that apparently might come after us all if we don’t have machine guns. It’s a violent and macho attitude, promoted by the NRA.
The NRA doesn’t kill people, but they sure do their part.
We live in a society that glorifies violence. We live in a society where weapons are easy to obtain. We live in a society where some people think we should all be able to own any type of weapons we want.
We live in a society where violence is considered good, legitimate entertainment but love between some people is considered disgusting, immoral and sinful. And we live in a society where far too often people walk into movie theatres and schools and randomly kill innocent people.
It really makes no sense. I hope we figure it out.
The moment Staples High School guidance counselors heard about Friday’s shootings in Newtown, they offered to help.
Two days later, the entire staff — including the school psychologist and social worker — took shifts at the crisis and counseling center, in John Reed Intermediate School. They worked with students, teachers, family members and first responders to process the horrific tragedy.
Deborah Slocum, interviewed on “Good Morning Staples” today. (Photo courtesy of Mike Zito)
This morning, on the student TV show “Good Morning Staples,” junior Marla Friedson interviewed several staffers about their experiences. Long-time guidance counselor Deborah Slocum told an especially riveting tale.
She sat with a woman who taught kindergarten at Sandy Hook Elementary School for 15 years. This year, she transferred to a different building.
Five of the children killed on Friday were hers last year.
She felt a tremendous range of emotions, Deb said. There was “survivor guilt,” for not being at the school when the tragedy occurred. There was “deep sorrow” for the youngsters she had taught.
And she worried about her own 11-year-old children. They know how close their mother was to her students. And they themselves are close in age to the boys and girls who were killed.
The woman wore a bracelet. “#1 Teacher,” it said. It had been a gift from her kindergarteners — and they’d made it themselves.
The woman told Deb more stories. She’d just called a close friend — still teaching at Sandy Hook but now in a hospital, recovering from injuries. She’d stepped into the hallway, and been shot in the foot. She went right back into her classroom, locked the door, and told her students she’d “stepped in red paint.”
She added, “Everything will be okay. You just have to do what I tell you to.”
Hannah Foley (left) and Marla Friedson, hosting today’s edition of “Good Morning Staples.” (Photo courtesy of Mike Zito)
It was an emotionally wrenching day. But as she helped the former Sandy Hook teacher process all that had happened, Deb realized something too. The teacher Deb was talking to kept referring to her students as “my kids.”
“Everyone I know in education talks about ‘my kids,'” Deb said.
“Teachers everywhere feel personal responsibility for students they encounter. It’s almost like being second parents.”
It was a gripping interview. But — like the great teachers in Newtown, and the wonderful counselor she is — Deborah Slocum took the opportunity to turn it into a teachable moment, for the students riveted to “Good Morning Staples.”
“Treasure the relationships you have with your teachers, and everyone else in education,” she said.
“You may not even realize how much you mean to them.”
(Today’s “Good Morning Staples” TV show also featured an emotional interview with 2 Newtown High School students, and insights by several guidance counselors. Click here to view the entire program.)
The Careys have lived in Westport for many years. They raised their 3 children here. But their hearts still beat strongly for their hometown.
The Honan Funeral Home was founded in 1903 by Pat’s grandfather. It’s been in the family ever since.
It’s the only funeral home in Newtown. This week, Dan Honan — Pat’s brother — is handling 11 funerals. Many of the services are the most horrible kind: children’s.
Neil Callanan — Pat’s nephew, and Brian, Mike and Meaghan Carey’s cousin — posted the story below on his blog. It provides one more intimate, heartbreaking look into an international — but now very local — tragedy.
My mother and her many (7) siblings were raised by my grandparents on Main Street in Newtown, CT.
Just down the street from the town general store and the picturesque flag pole you’ve seen on the news. The home is not unlike other homes on the street, and probably not all that unlike grandparents’ homes around the country. What distinguishes our family home is not that it is next door to the family business at 58 Main, but that our family business happens to be the Honan Funeral Home. The sole funeral home in Newtown, CT.
The Honan Funeral Home.
Founded in 1903 by my great-grandfather, William Sr. and taken over by my grandfather William Jr. in 1966, the business has been run by my uncle Daniel since his passing. The Honan Funeral Home has been a big part of our family for more than a century. The uniqueness of it was a part our our lives in both bigger, and smaller ways than you might expect. The famously casual nature in which my grandfather could discuss his work was seemingly balanced by the heaviness of being part of a family who handle their own calling hours and funeral services when a family member left us.
My grandfather’s (and now my uncle’s) day-to-day was very different from you or I. The topics of his consultations and mine could not be more distinct. But in ways I’ve been thinking about more and more over the last few days the way my grandfather ran things serves as a model for who and what I’d like to be in many ways and especially in business.
My uncle is faced with a work week that is unimaginable, but he’ll look to all those years working side-by-side with my grandfather to help guide him through serving those who have just experienced unknowable tragedy.
He’ll be a familiar face to those in need; because just like my grandfather, Dan is incredibly active in the Newtown community.
He’ll both give and receive support from the St. Rose of Lima Church community; because like my grandfather, he is active in his church community during both good and bad times.
He’ll rely on his colleagues from around the state to help provide the support and service the many families in need that would otherwise be impossible with a staff of just 2; because like my grandfather, he understands the value of relationships within his industry.
Young boys enter the Honan Funeral Home yesterday, for the funeral of 6-year-old Jack Pinto..
And when he is able to walk those families through the unbearable experience they’ll face this week with confidence and compassion, he’ll being doing his job; because like my grandfather learned from his father, Dan knows that it is his job to use the 100+ years of experience passed down to him to make things a bit less awful for those who’ve lost so much.
And by attempting to do just that, he makes our whole family proud to be Honans from Newtown.
Rick Davis is a native Westporter: Saugatuck Elementary School Class of 1975, Bedford Junior High 1978, Staples ’81.
Now he lives in Newtown — near the police station and cemetery, right on the town green. He’s heard the sirens, seen the media circus, and witnessed an amazing outpouring of support. A makeshift memorial sprouted on his corner, filled with teddy bears and lit by candles.
Rick Davis took this photo of the green in front of his house. The view is south, toward the town Christmas tree and cemetery. In the distance — on a bridge crossing a pond — a big red sign says, “Pray for Newtown.”
Newtown — like his hometown — is “an amazing place,” Rick says. “And even more so now.”
My sister Nancy has been here for 30 years or so, my wife Beth and I settled her 20 years ago, and I often see many other transplanted Westporters at kids’ events, at church and around town.
Beth and I chose to put roots down in Newtown back in 1992 for several reasons, foremost being the close-knit community that reminded us of our old Westport and Fairfield days (where Beth grew up), and for the amazing school system. All 3 of our kids have gone through the schools here (2 are still in it), and not a day goes by that we are not grateful for the teachers, administrators and staff here.
We are all stunned, saddened and reeling from this senseless act upon our community. We know that in time, we’ll be stronger and closer because of it.
Newtown looks like Westport did years ago. This week, though, there are poignant memorials all around town.
As odd as it is to see hundreds of media trucks descend upon your town — imagine Anderson Cooper reporting from the Minuteman statue, satellite trucks filling up both sides of Main Street, or BBC news doing interviews at Oscar’s — seeing vigils taking place across the globe in honor of our town is humbling and comforting. We know that these students and families in Norway, Aurora, China and beyond have suffered so deeply themselves, and it is testimony to the fact that life goes on, albeit changed.
Please keep up the prayers and thoughts for those here in town who have lost their loved ones, and thank them for their support.
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