They were teachers and teachers’ aides. Some were just embarking on their careers; one neared retirement. There was the principal, who worked to make Sandy Hook Elementary School a beacon of learning in Newtown, Conn. Six adults at the school died Friday when Adam Lanza opened fire. Before he arrived at the school, investigators said, Lanza killed his mother in the house they shared. From friends and relatives, these portraits of lives lived in service emerged.
Rachel Marie D’Avino
Rachel Marie D’Avino, 29, carried a tremendous smile, finding humor in almost anything, her family recalled.
The children she worked with, providing behavioral therapy, brought the biggest smile to her face. Throughout her career, she lived out her passion to help children, hoping to lead them into a healthy and happy adult life. She invited them into her home. She hosted holiday and craft parties for them, allowing each child to become a part of her family.
Among her other passions, she loved animals, cooking, baking, photography, and karate. Her boyfriend, who was her best friend, was planning to propose to her on Christmas Eve. She was also working toward her doctoral degree from the University of St. Joseph of Hartford.
“Now instead of ‘Dr.’ in front of her name, she’ll have ‘St.’ in front of it,” Mary D’Avino, her mother, said. “She’s up there with those kids.”
Dawn Hochsprung, 47, devoted her life to her students up until her final moments, reportedly lunging toward the shooter who barreled into her school.
“My only hope is that the gunman actually had a little bit of fear knowing this 5-foot-2 raging bull was coming at him,” said her cousin, Melanie Buhrmaster-Bunch.
To her family, she was a wife, mother, and grandmother. At school, she was an award-winning principal who arrived early and stayed late at a job she loved, transforming herself into the “Sandy Hook Book Fairy” to encourage reading. On Friday nights and during weekends, she was pursuing a doctorate.
“I would say anyone who is planning on being a teacher, read the life of Dawn Hochsprung because she was the ideal, the epitome of what teaching is and what a teacher is supposed to be,” her cousin said.
Nancy Lanza, the 52-year-old mother of the gunman, was a quiet woman, but those who knew her recalled her as a generous soul.
At her favorite bar, My Place, she regularly picked up the tab for those short on cash. She spent much of her time volunteering with charities.
Friends spoke of her love for gardening and landscaping and said she was an avid gun collector.
The owners of My Place will dedicate a bar stool in her honor.
Anne Marie Murphy
Anne Marie Murphy, 52, reportedly shielded Dylan Hockley, one of her students, from a rain of bullets that would ultimately kill them both.
“We take great comfort in knowing that Dylan was not alone when he died,” Dylan’s parents, Ian and Nicole Hockley, said.
Anne Marie worked at the school as a teacher’s aide, teaching art and special education as she hoped for a full-time position to open up. She loved the school and just wanted to be around children, her friends recalled.
Growing up, she was surrounded by a large family and would spend holidays at a home overflowing with family members.
“It was my wife. It was a terrible tragedy,” her husband, Mike Murphy, said. “She just tried to protect her kids.”
Lauren Rousseau, 30, stood by a chalkboard in a childhood picture addressing the toys at her feet as her very own students. From an early age, she had decided to become a teacher.
Last September, she accepted a full-time substitute teaching position at Sandy Hook, bringing her closer to that dream.
“She had such big plans,” her father, Giles Rousseau, said. “She would just go on and on about the kids.”
When she was not teaching, Lauren worked at a Starbucks to help pay her bills. In her free moments, she spent time with her friends; her cat, Laila, who was a regular feature in her photos; and her boyfriend, Tony, with whom there was talk of marriage down the road, her mother said.
“I’ll take some comfort that the last year of her life was her happiest,” her mother Terri Rousseau said.
Mary Sherlach, 56, was one year away from retirement after 20 years as the school psychologist. As the attack against the school began and the shots were heard, she reportedly headed toward the danger, becoming one of the first victims that day.
It was not the first time she had put her safety aside.
Neighbors said that as Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on Trumbull, Conn., Sherlach rushed across the street to check on her neighbors.
She was known for often spending her day on her front porch, sitting on a white wicker love seat.
Victoria Soto, 27, died a hero. It is thought that when the gunfire started, she acted quickly, hiding her students in a classroom closet and putting herself between the shooter and her students.
“That is how she was found. Huddled with her children,” said her cousin Jim Wiltsie.
Soto had turned 27 last month and was working as a teacher, which many friends described as her dream job. She was working toward her master’s degree in special education at Southern Connecticut State University. Outside teaching, Soto spent time with her family and was active in her church.
“I look forward to an amazing year in the first grade with my amazing students of room 10!” she wrote on her online teacher’s page.
Melanie Dostis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.