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Newtown: A special town shattered by tragedy

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 10:50 a.m. MDT

Cat McDonald, left, of the Long Island borough of New York, holds a candle as she and Emily Prout of Washington, sit by the White House fence mourning the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct., in Washington, on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.  Cat McDonald, left, of the Long Island borough of New York, holds a candle as she and Emily Prout of Washington, sit by the White House fence mourning the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct., in Washington, on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. "We're here for the families," says McDonald, "to reflect on the tragedy that's happened." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Jacquelyn Martin, 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.

Lindsay Merikas, 26, of Alexandria, Va., wears a button saying Lindsay Merikas, 26, of Alexandria, Va., wears a button saying "Stop Gun Violence" as she gathered with other supporters of gun control on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, in Washington, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, during a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct., and to call on President Obama to pass strong gun control laws. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Jacquelyn Martin, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

"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.

In this photo provided by the Newtown Bee, a police officer leads two women and a child from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.  (Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks) MANDATORY CREDIT: NEWTOWN BEE, SHANNON HICKS, Associated Press) In this photo provided by the Newtown Bee, a police officer leads two women and a child from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks) MANDATORY CREDIT: NEWTOWN BEE, SHANNON HICKS, Associated Press)

"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.

Men and women hold candles in vigil outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church during a healing service held in for victims of an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.  A gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the town, killing 26 people, including 20 children.  (Charles Krupa, Associated Press) Men and women hold candles in vigil outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church during a healing service held in for victims of an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. A gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the town, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (Charles Krupa, Associated Press)

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.

In this photo provided by the Newtown Bee, Connecticut State Police lead a line of children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 after a shooting at the school.  (Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks) MANDATORY CREDIT: NEWTOWN BEE, SHANNON HICKS, Associated Press) In this photo provided by the Newtown Bee, Connecticut State Police lead a line of children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 after a shooting at the school. (Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks) MANDATORY CREDIT: NEWTOWN BEE, SHANNON HICKS, Associated Press)

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."

The Bee had closed this week's edition — with front-page reports on the schools "performing at or above target," on vandalism at a cemetery, and other stories — when the first word of the shooting came in.

"We've been putting everything on our website. We were the first ones down there," Smith said. "We've had calls from Turkey, all over Europe."

A police scanner alerted the newsroom, and reporter Shannon Hicks said, "I listened long enough to figure out where this was unfolding and headed out." Her photo of terrified children being led across a school parking lot appeared around the world.

Heavily armed Connecticut State troopers are on the scene at the Sandy Hook School following a shooting at the school, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 in Newtown, Conn.  (Frank Becerra Jr., AP) Heavily armed Connecticut State troopers are on the scene at the Sandy Hook School following a shooting at the school, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. (Frank Becerra Jr., AP)

Asked about the town, Hicks said, "It's a good town. We have our issues" — squabbling over the local budget, police news and the like — "but this is not the kind of thing that's suposed to be one of them."

Standing by the cluttered antique wooden desk of the publisher, she looked down sadly. "I've already heard comparisons to Columbine," she said.

Folks here want to tell about the town that was here for 300 years before Friday's attack.

At the Bee, they mention how Halloween brings out so many children to Main Street houses — one was made into a "princess castle" this year, another for years had a three-story web and giant spider in front — that the paper has used clickers and counted more than 2,000 kids some years.

They mention the homely, simple things that might counter the horror.

"We have two garden clubs, and they get along, they don't hate each other," said Susan White, who checks the flagpole every day.

She laughed but then grew more serious, mentioning that her father was on the school board that authorized the building of the Sandy Hook school. "That was my school," she said.

Telling about an award her mother recently received for work on a 75-year-old scholarship fund in town, she said of the ceremony, "It was a Norman Rockwell moment."

And was this a Norman Rockwell town?

"We've got our ups and downs, but we're a very real town. 'Norman Rockwell' sounds like we're perfect... but we're not very different from any other town," she said.

And now, she added, "People will stick together. They have to."

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company