*Featured Image by Rollin Jewett
A few days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I received a call from an organization that was making blankets for the families of the victims. I was working at the time as trademark counsel for Nintendo and was tasked with offering legal approval of licensing requests. One victim was Noah Pozner, whose family had described him as a Nintendo fan, a brand loyalist even at his young age. Noah had received a new Wii console for his 6th birthday two weeks before his death. His favorite game was Mario Bros. The company asked if they could get permission to use Nintendo’s logo on the blanket. Approval was easy.
The children of Sandy Hook were finding their own voices at the time of their deaths. Jack Pinto was an aspiring athlete, already a talent in football and wrestling. Olivia Rose Engel excelled at math. James Mattioli loved to sing, while Allison Wyatt enjoyed art and drawing. Chase Kowalski had already completed a triathlon, while Jessica Rekos had competed in horseback riding. Benjamin Wheeler’s ambition was more pragmatic. He wanted to run a lighthouse. The stories of their lives were starting to form.
Besides eliciting profound grief, the Newtown tragedy made me nostalgic. I grew up in Connecticut and the bucolic town of Newtown was familiar to me. I went to Kindergarten in Bethel, a town that borders Newtown. Like Noah and his classmates, I dreamed that my life would have an impact on the world around me. That my life would have meaning and that my name would matter in the end.
My first memory as a Kindergarten student in Grassy Plains Elementary School, less than 10 miles away from Newtown and 36 years before Noah’s death, was that it sparked my interest in politics. It was an odd choice for a child but in January of 1977, we were in the midst of inaugurating a new President, Jimmy Carter. Despite my father’s misgivings about Jimmy Carter’s fiscal policies, we welcomed the Georgian, a man with a military background and a high enough moral compass to cleanse the stench wrought from Watergate and Viet Nam. During class, our teacher Mrs. Foggy held a mock inauguration on the same day as the real one. We first held a mini election. It was a condensed American Civics class for five-year-olds with undiagnosed ADHD. I remember the day well because I was elected Class President, or at least the role of Jimmy Carter. I had won because while others stumbled through their confusing speeches, their pockets filled with Play-Do and Adventure People, I rose and pulled my lips apart, inside out with my index finger, to create an exaggerated smile that mimicked our new Commander-in-Chief. The other kids laughed, and my opponents stood no chance. It was an impression I had seen a comedian do on a show and I had practiced in my room. I introduced it at the dinner table one night and my father made me “do the Carter face” for guests and his friends on cue. Dividends finally paid off when I stood before a room full of voters and it came naturally.
My affinity for local politics would follow me throughout my later years. In the Fifth grade, I lost an election to Heather Murphy. Because the girls far outnumbered the boys my teacher rewarded me by creating a co-Presidency. I won class elections in the 7th and 8th grades after transferring to an all-boys school. During high school, I was elected for two terms as Class President based on a populist campaign slogan, “Short in Stature but Big on Ideas.” As it turned out, I had no ideas other than that slogan. I lost a bid for a third term following a disastrous Junior prom that, accounting for inflation, cost about $250 a ticket and boasted a curious theme of “Love the One You’re With,” a joke which lost its humor after my date left for greener pastures with a classmate.
I had no idea what I was doing in school politics, but I liked the prestige the title afforded me. I liked being well-known in my niche world. When I entered college, I majored in Political Science with the dream of one day returning home and running for office in Connecticut. In 1992, during the summer before my senior year, I landed an internship with my local Congressman, Chris Shays, a Republican who embraced conservative principles but who had a fierce libertarian streak especially when it came to social issues. While such breeds are long gone in today’s divided political climate, in Connecticut politics, Shays’ stance was common following the likes of Congressman Stuart McKinney and Senators Lowell Weicker and Joe Lieberman.
It was not high-end work but as one of four interns, I had great access to the Congressman as well as politicians who wanted to lobby Shays, who was often in the enviable position of holding a swing vote. My friend Tom Davidson enjoyed the most menial task. It was the staff’s job to deliver flags to the Capitol Police so that they could be raised and lowered in honor of a deceased member of our Fourth Congressional District. During the summer months, this job fell to Tom, who pulled a bright red Radio Flyer wagon overflowing with American flags with a squeaky wheel that wouldn’t cooperate down the corridors of the Capitol.
We all shadowed “Chris” as the Congressman asked us to call him, attended GOP Whip meetings led by Rep. Newt Gingrich, answered phones, and opened the mail. While other interns had occasional run-ins with their elected official, I shared scrapple with Chris at the Members’ Dining Room and had regular conversations with Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Native American Congressman from Colorado whose office was next door and who once peered around our office’s entrance to “scare the hell out of us” he claimed, all privileged white boys from Connecticut’s gold coast. Chris’s only rule – and it was non-negotiable – was that when his daughter called, you tracked him down regardless of who he was meeting with or where he was.
One afternoon Tom and I noticed invitations to events sponsored by various lobbying groups, some more interesting than others. Shays was a Christian Scientist and did not drink. He shunned social events like these and so allowed Tom and I to go. The California Association of Winegrape Growers was a delightful lot and put out a great spread. The next night was sponsored by the Flight Attendants Association and we enlisted my good friend from college, Jim Kuser, who was interning for the Department of Health and Human Services. Jim was from Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and had attended the boarding school in his town. Although his father was a successful banker, he viewed himself as a character in a Bruce Springsteen song. He wore madras shorts and spoke with clear diction, but when he drank, he adopted a different persona, as if he were coming in off the docks at the Port of Camden.
My 21st birthday was a week after Jim’s. We treated each other to memorable nights ensuring that the price we paid for a legal night of drinking was high yet memorable. At dinner, the night after my birthday, Jim was more solemn. His high school friend Christian Prince had come up in a few conversations, but he would often veer off when it got too heavy for guys focused on good times rather than existential thoughts. Jim observed that Christian and I had a lot in common. Besides being born two days apart, we enjoyed similar senses of humor, had both served in student government in high school, and had played lacrosse at our respective colleges. Jim told me that Christian would have turned 21 the next day on July 8. It was unfair, Jim said, that Christian had been deprived of enjoying life’s milestones.
The story of Christian Prince had been heavily reported. Prince was a student at Yale University when he was murdered on February 16, 1991. He was returning to his dorm from a party that night when he was shot and killed, his body lying on the steps of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven. It was an attempted robbery. Although the facts remain in dispute due to recanted statements of witnesses, the assailants allegedly pistol-whipped Prince before taking his wallet and fatally shooting him.
In honor of his fallen friend, Jim spent much of his summer meeting with Congressional staffers on the Brady Bill, named after James Brady, President Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary who had been shot during John Hinckley Jr.’s botched assassination attempt. The Brady Bill was a hot topic during the summer of 1992. It mandated federal background checks and a five-day waiting period on firearm purchases. Former President Reagan had lobbied hard for the bill. Christian’s father, a trademark attorney from Washington, DC, and staunch Republican who was a tennis partner of George H.W. Bush’s, had testified on behalf of the bill’s passage, arguing that the Second Amendment does not preclude passage of gun control measures. ″Was that a well-regulated militia that killed my son? ″ he asked a House Judiciary subcommittee in 1991. Prince’s testimony reads as if it could have been given post-Newtown or any of the other number of tragedies since. It’s as if progress has stopped and American society has been mired in this same nightmare for over 30 years. ″How many tragedies does it take to change political priorities, or can good common sense put individual rights in proper perspective? ″ asked Ted Prince in 1992.
At the end of the summer, just before Jim and I headed home before our final year of college, we attended another reception. My friends and I headed over to the Longworth Building for a night of free drinks. I felt like a real politician but I was just a kid playing dress up for a few months. While I was drinking my share of some association’s “lobbying” budget, Chris Shays was sitting at his desk reading policy papers and trying to figure out how to toe the line of fiscal conservativism and social liberalism, something he would ultimately fail at when he lost his seat to a Democrat in 2008. Jim and I were chatting when a man interrupted our conversation. He was from the National Rifle Association. I don’t recall the substance of the conversation other than that he was polite, as was Jim, whose interests were at odds over the Brady Bill. Jim talked about Christian Prince and the NRA man was respectful. Jim excused himself and I was left with the man. He turned to me and said that it was tragic what had happened to Christian Prince, but “if that Yale student had had a gun with him that black boy would be dead and not his friend.” And at the end of the summer, my lesson was complete: politics was not easy. It wasn’t enough to call the entire incident a tragedy. Politics required one to decide which tragic outcome was better for your interests.
It’s something that was ingrained in me when I returned to DC after graduation. In November, when the interns are gone and DC is enveloped in a cold rain, there are no free drinks. Politics, whether it be American government or in the confines of a corporate office, is not easy. It was a harsh lesson and I left DC more jaded at 26 than when I entered as a 21-year-old student.
Chris Shays was ultimately a key vote in securing the passage of the Brady Bill, which passed with the help of 70 Republican Senators and Representatives and was signed into law in 1993. Much has changed from the 1992 universe. At least in Congress, New England has been wiped clean of the Republican Party. In 2012, Chris Shays sought a comeback, running as a moderate for the Republican nomination for the open Senate seat in Connecticut. He lost to Linda McMahon, wife of World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon, by a margin of 74% to 26%.
During the past 30 years, my own perspective has also changed. I now empathize more with Ted Prince than Christian. I am a father of two daughters and now when I think of Christian Prince, I do not think of lost opportunities but of a son lying motionless on the steps of a church, not in the arms of his mother or father but alone on the cold dark concrete. And I fear for the fate of my own daughters, one in college and another soon to be. After Newtown, I remembered how I would drop my two daughters off at school and then wonder whether how they would get along, not whether they would return home. I empathized with Barak Obama, who echoed similar words following the Newtown tragedy: “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years. And each time I learn the news I react not as a President, but as anybody else would – as a parent. And that was especially true today. I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do.”
Over the years I learned what a grind politics is. I am much more like Chris Shays than the 21-year-old version of myself. I would rather spend a quiet night reading a history book than attending a cocktail party telling backslapping stories and gladhanding. But sometimes I look back on my halcyon days of Connecticut politics and there is a twinge of regret. I am still filled with the naïve notions that I would not have to sacrifice my own soul for the vision of who I wanted to be when I grew up, when I could win over the people by showcasing a funny impression or dry wit that played well with constituents of jocks and nerds rather than liberals, conservatives, and extremists. What I really regret most is not achieving the fame that I thought I was destined for when I ran roughshod over school politics from the age of 10 to 17. Like the children of Newton, when I was a child, I did not want to wallow in obscurity. I enjoy being a trademark attorney. It is a stable profession, the same one enjoyed by Ted Prince. But while it challenges the mind it does not stroke the ego.
While that occasionally engenders remorse, I have learned from my time as a parent rather than a politician, that fame is an ephemeral gift. To value fame over another four-letter word, “name,” is short-sighted. “Fame is a four-letter word,” said Fred Rogers, who argued that those in public have a civic duty to act responsibly. “And like tape or zoom or face or pain or life or love what ultimately matters is what we do with it.”
One can use fame to make the world better than he or she found it. Or one can use it to spread fear and sow division. It is a clear choice: do good or buoy one’s status. It was never clearer than after the Newtown tragedy when rumors spread that the school shooting was a hoax conducted by child actors to weaken the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. Soon after I received the call requesting permission to use the Nintendo logo on the tribute blanket, Noah Pozner and his family had received threats and disparaging emails. Photos of Noah, some accompanied by pornographic and anti-Semitic content, along with comments like “Fake Kid” and “Liar”, were distributed on websites. Many memorial pages and fundraising efforts on behalf of the victims and their families were pulled due to cyberbullying attacks. The backlash led Pozner’s family to have an open casket for Noah’s funeral service. Noah’s mother wanted the world to see truth in its purest and most heart-wrenching form – a young boy’s mouth and jaw blown away from the impact of 11 bullets.
Most of us dream of fame as children. We want to pursue professions that are exciting and meaningful. We want our lives to have purpose. Our dreams become more grounded in reality when the harsh lessons of life chip away at our aspirations of glory. With maturity we just want our names to have meaning. We want our lives to have an impact on others so our legacy, whether it be big or small, will be remembered. It is why Chris Shays made sure that even if for a brief few seconds, his constituents received the honor they deserved when they died, a flag raised high above the Capitol and a handwritten note to the families to recognize a life and the meaning of the name behind it.
Shays’ practice was not a unique one. We honor the legacies of those befallen by tragedy by acknowledging their names. The power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial lies in its simplicity: a long list of names laid out on the black stone. Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement have implored others to “Say Their Names”. If you say their names, you acknowledge the identity of lost lives. The 9/11 Memorial is an impressive architectural feat, but it is the list of names that offer the connection between the living and the dead.
A permanent memorial to the lives lost in the shooting at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School will begin in the summer of 2021 after Newtown voters endorsed $3.7 million in public funding for the project. The memorial will include a reflecting pool and sycamore tree at its center. The names of the 20 children and six school employees killed that morning in 2012 will be engraved around the pool.
A few years after the Newtown tragedy had been lost in the news cycle and I had approved the licensing request on behalf of Nintendo, I created my own memorial to Newtown. I saw a report by Anderson Cooper, who had returned to the site of the crime on its anniversary. He again mentioned Noah and his affinity for Nintendo. I did not want to forget Cooper’s powerful story, so I wrote Noah’s name on an index card, brought it to work the next day and kept it tucked away in my desk. I am obsessed with note cards. The theory is that if you write it down, you will remember it.
I kept this card hidden from others though. It was my secret assignment. I kept it private because I thought the story was too personal to share with others at work. I was managing people and I felt that telling the story of a boy’s tragedy would somehow seem unprofessional. There was legal work to be done and office politics dictates that you should not show your vulnerable side.
I was mistaken. Whenever I would be stymied by a frustrating project, or I would be fatigued from a midnight call with colleagues from foreign offices, I would open the desk and see the name, and I would somehow feel stronger, motivated, and inspired. I would feel connected to something inside me. I would feel a twinge of sadness as well as gratitude for life’s daily grace. I would recognize the importance of having a job where you were part of something special. It is not politics. That dream is long gone. I value the legacy of character over the transitory high of fame. In seeing Noah’s name, I would remember growing up in the same Connecticut where my own innocence had long faded and where the tragedy had struck, a society where dreams were not jaded by the stark reality of human depravity and truth so difficult to obtain.
Sometimes seeing the card would prompt me to work a little harder, to get things done that might otherwise slide by. I would push myself to scratch out one more item on my ever-growing number of To-Dos. Other times the notecard would compel me to go home. To see my wife and daughters and cherish their presence. The list can wait until tomorrow. There was something more important waiting for me.
It was a simple index card with a name and another four-letter word. NOAH.