NEWTOWN, Conn. As the residents of Newtown, Conn., prepare on Monday to bury the first two young victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, they are also remembering principal Dawn Hochsprung, who is among the school’s 26 dead. She was 47.
When friends and colleagues describe Hochsprung, the first thing they mention is her big smile. Maryanne Van Aken is a member of the school board in Woodbury, Conn., where Hochsprung once worked. Van Aken and Hochsprung did volunteer work together and became friends.
“She was just a happy person,” Van Aken said. “If you saw her on a day that maybe you weren’t happy, she’d make you feel better.”
Hochsprung was a mother, stepmother and grandmother. Outside of school, she loved sailing on Long Island Sound. She and her husband George were married on a sailboat. Mary Ann Jacob, a library clerk at Sandy Hook, recalls how Hochsprung infused that sense of fun into teaching.
“We had a book fair a few weeks ago and she dressed up as reading fairy with a light and went around putting fairy reading dust on all the kids,” Jacob said. “She was an amazing woman. She was strong and fun. The kids loved her. It is a huge loss.”
Hochsprung not only wanted her students to achieve, she achieved herself. While working full time as a principal she was also beginning a doctorate program.
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“She was always somebody who wanted to go the extra mile, always set the bar high for herself, her staff, her kids and their school,” Van Aken said. “That was the kind of person that she was.”
Van Aken says Hochsprung tried to prepare her students for the world outside of school. She recalls how Hochsprung took a direct approach to stop bullying among a group of girls.
“She called them all in, sat them down and talked to them and made them understand this is how this feels,” Van Aken said. ” ‘If you’re being bullied do you realize what you’re doing to this person?’ Those girls really understood you were really wounding this person.”
Hochsprung not only invested in her students, but in her staff. She let them know they were valued, that she appreciated them.
“A couple of times a month you’d walk into the teachers room and there’d be pretty blue box of Dottie’s Donuts. She would bring them in and treat all the teachers, the whole faculty, to doughnuts from there,” said Pam Midlik, an educational assistant at Sandy Hook. “She was very generous, very kind, very giving, very loving. We were like a family.”
On Friday, this family was shattered. Hochsprung reportedly put herself between the gunman and the children. When Van Aken first heard there were fatalities, her heart sank.
“I knew in my gut it was going to be Dawn because she was that person who absolutely, I mean I heard that she lunged at the gunman and believe me when I tell you that would be Dawn,” Van Aken said. “She would be lunging at whoever was trying to hurt her kids.”
The children, teachers and staff who survived are trying to make sense out of what happened. Many say Dawn Hochsprung was the kind of leader who could have helped them recover and begin to move forward.