Newtown: A special town shattered by tragedy

By Christopher Sullivan

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Dec. 15 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

A U.S. flag flies at half-staff on Main Street in honor of the people killed when a gunman opened fire inside a Connecticut elementary school, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, in Newtown, Conn.

David Goldman, Associated Press

NEWTOWN, Conn. — At the crossroads that marks the center of this three-century-old New England postcard town stands a flagpole that's a kind of barometer. Every day, says Susan Osborne White, who has lived here all her life, "it tells me which way the wind is blowing" — and she calls the local newspaper whenever the flag is lowered to half-staff, to ask why.

No one is asking that now as the flag forlonly hangs over a heartbroken, uncomprehending town.

Along streets where every window twinkles with holiday candles, police sirens wailed Friday. Over horse pastures in what was until fairly recently a rural town, helicopters' rotors thudded. In shops, televisions set to news stations blared.

Gesturing at a TV image of the shooting scene behind him at Newtown Hardware, Kyle Watts gave a pained cry, "I know that place," and shook his head. He's 18 and had gone to Sandy Hook Elementary School, and yet he and others working at the store felt they hardly knew where they were.

"A week or two ago," he said in disbelief, "we had the Christmas tree lighting. There was singing."

In normal times, this is a place that marks the year with a community tree lighting, an endless Labor Day parade running past the Main Street flagpole in which it's said everyone is either a participant or spectator or both, and an annual fund-raising lobster dinner at one of the five volunteer fire companies. It's a place where a benefactress, Mary Hawley, donated the classically designed town hall and the large, re-brick library, both set among towering oaks and maples. On a lake in town, part of one of the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedies was filmed.

It's become a bedroom community for commuters to Manhattan and Connecticut's more toney coastal towns, but it has retained the rural character that was set in 1708 when the colonial assembly of Connecticut permitted 36 men to lay out a new town. Some houses today date from not long after that, but there are typical modern subdivisions, too.

"It's still very much a small town in its heart. People really know each other," said Dan Cruson, the town's historian who has written a number of books about Newtown.

Sandy Hook is a section of town where the first grist mill was built along the rocky, rushing Pootatuck River. Other mills followed, and manufacturing grew in Sandy Hook. "It's always had its own identity," Cruson said, and in recent years it has been revitalized with smart restaurants and shops in Sandy Hook's center.

Every year, the local Lions Club raises thousands of dollars with a charity event along the river: Thousands of numbered yellow rubber ducks are sold for $5 each, then dumped in the swift current for a "race," the winner of which might get a big screen TV or a weekend in Manhattan 60 miles away.

In the crowd watching and cheering and at events like the fire department's lobster dinner, "everyone knows everyone. All of Sandy Hook is so tight," said Watts.

Maybe the school shooter was recognized when he entered and didn't seem a threat because he was known, he and others at the hardware store speculated. "You would never think ..." he said, leaving the thought incomplete.

The closeness has another dimension, of course.

"Everybody in town is going to help out. ... All of the churches are open tonight," said his co-worker Francis Oggeri, who's 22.

Scudder Smith agreed. "I was just down at the firehouse. Restaurants were sending in food," said Smith, publisher of the Newtown Bee, the weekly paper that has published since 1877.

He said Newtown is "getting bigger than the little country town that I grew up in. I've been here 77 years.... But it still has the feeling between neighbors that it always had."

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