Jeff Benedict: Witnessing grief and compassion in Newtown

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18 2012 12:40 p.m. MST

Robbie Parker fights back tears as he speaks during a news conference Dec. 15.

Associated Press

Dave Checketts is not a professionally trained clergyman. The former chairman of Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks is currently CEO of Legends Hospitality, the concessions and merchandise company he jointly owns with the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys.

But he's also a lay minister for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with oversight of 10 Mormon congregations in Fairfield County, Conn., including the one in Newtown.

On Friday morning, Checketts had left his New Canaan, Conn., home and headed to his Park Avenue office to prepare for a weekend business trip to Dallas for Sunday's Cowboys-Steelers game. He and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones planned to host a group of new investors. But late morning he got an email about a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. From his laptop, he accessed the church records for Mormon families in Newtown. Five of them had children that attended the school.

A series of phone calls confirmed that all of those children were accounted for except one — 6-year-old Emilie Parker, a first-grader.

Suddenly, it wasn't possible to focus on business. Checketts cleared his calendar for the afternoon.

Robbie and Alyssa Parker had just moved to Connecticut from Ogden, Utah. Along with Emilie, they have daughters ages 2 and 4. Robbie, a health care professional, worked at Danbury Hospital. When Checketts reached him there, the facility was on lockdown due to the school shooting. Robbie was heading to meet his wife at the fire station in Newtown. She was there with other parents awaiting word on the children.

Checketts emailed leaders of Mormon congregations throughout western Connecticut: "Pray for Emilie Parker."

He also organized a prayer service for that night. Then he headed back to Connecticut. He was almost to the Parkers' home when he got word that Emilie was among the 20 children who had died.

"I didn't know what to say," Checketts said. "I go back and forth between tears and anger. It is just hard to comprehend."

The business trip to Dallas got canceled. In an email, Checketts notified Jones and the investors. One by one, they expressed condolences and promised prayers.

When Checketts reached the Parker home, Robbie asked him to lead his family in prayer. While praying, Checketts felt impressed to say that Robbie would deal with his grief by speaking publicly about the tragedy, and that he would emerge as a powerful voice for compassion and peace.

After the prayer, the family's needs were discussed. Chief among them was finding a mortician. But funeral homes in the area were overwhelmed. Checketts promised to take care of everything, including all burial and funeral expenses.

He called a funeral home in a nearby town. Six years earlier, Checketts had attended a service there for a young Mormon missionary who was killed by a drunk driver in Argentina.

"I had to go tell that boy's parents that he wasn't coming home alive," Checketts said.

It was the hardest thing he'd ever done as an ecclesiastical leader. However, that experience had introduced Checketts to an empathetic funeral director.

Suddenly facing an even harder situation, Checketts reached out to him and asked if he would prepare Emily's body for burial. Checketts explained how all the expenses would be covered.

"There will be no expenses," the funeral director said.

The following day, after authorities released the names of the victims, Robbie Parker was the first parent to speak to the national media. Without notes or a spokesman, Robbie choked back tears and expressed sympathy for the family of the man who killed 27 people and himself. "I can't imagine how hard this experience must be for you," he said.

Checketts was moved to tears.