By ALAINE GRIFFIN, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
December 23, 2012
Dawn Hochsprung kept politics out of her professional life.
But after the November election, Hochsprung, a registered Democrat, couldn't help sounding off to her Facebook friends in an exuberant post using the pseudonym "Dinna Fash," a term for "don't worry."
"Happy for my daughters, whose right to make decisions about their own bodies are preserved for four more years. Just happy."
Five weeks later, the president would hold Hochsprung's 6-month-old granddaughter, Alyson, and pinch her little cheeks during a meeting with loved ones of those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
"She was the biggest Obama fan," Hochsprung's daughter, Erica Lafferty said in an interview with The Courant on Tuesday night. "That would have been the highlight of her life."
Family and friends gathered Thursday for Hochsprung's funeral in Woodbury, where she lived with her husband, George. The hilly Litchfield County town of nearly 10,000 residents is about 15 miles from the Newtown school where she and 20 children and five school staff members were killed Friday.
Tuesday night, solemn mourners holding burning candles stood in pouring rain on the town green in Naugatuck, where Hochsprung graduated from high school in 1983, to remember the Sandy Hook Elementary School principal's life — 47 years marked by a string of both personal and professional milestones.
Loving daughter. Hard-working student-athlete. Passionate, award-winning teacher. Admired school principal. Devoted wife. Dedicated mother and grandmother.
And someone who ran toward the gunfire instead of away from it, an act worthy of acknowledgment by the president of the United States.
"We know that when danger arrived in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school staff did not flinch, they did not hesitate," President Obama said in a memorial service last week in Newtown.
"Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel D'Avino and Anne Marie Murphy. They responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances with courage and with love giving their lives to protect the children in their care."
Friends and family shocked by her death were hardly surprised at Hochsprung's actions in her final moments. Though petite, Hochsprung was a tested force in many aspects of her life, a champion for children, for equal rights and above all, for her daughters.
"She was the kid that every parent would want to have, the student that every teacher would want in the classroom, the athlete that every coach would want on their team, the schoolteacher every parent would want their child to have, the administrator that every community would want to lead their school," Ron Aliciene, Hochsprung's high school track coach, said.
Hochsprung was born in Towanda, Pa., on June 28, 1965. When she was 12, her father, William Lafferty, an engineer, moved his wife, son and daughter to Naugatuck after a job transfer.
Young Dawn Lafferty loved to play outdoors and read. She was also a tomboy with a love of sports she took with her into high school.
Though she wasn't a star athlete, teenage Dawn stood out in other ways, Aliciene, 63, now retired, said. She made her mark as a hard-working student athlete with a keen sense of social justice, eager to help out in school. She was captain of her sports teams and in student government. She learned early that she liked to lead.
"She was blessed with remarkable leadership skills," Aliciene said. "She had the drive and determination to overcome any challenge."
When the Naugatuck High boys track program refused to let her run sprints on the boys team, Hochsprung fought back, taking her case to the school board, Aliciene said. She won her case and recruited girls from throughout the school for the team.
"Dawn was like a pioneer," said Aliciene, the coach from 1979 until 1986. "She asked questions at the time like, 'Why should girls only play with dolls?' "
After high school, Hochsprung took classes at Naugatuck Valley Community College and Post University before settling into Central Connecticut State University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in special education.
She later received a master's degree in education from Southern Connecticut State University.
But it wasn't easy.
By this point in her life, Hochsprung was also a mother. She had a daughter, Christina Lafferty Hassinger, now 28 and a mother of four, when she was 19. A little more than a year later, Erica Lafferty was born.
A few years later, Hochsprung would have to learn how to do all of it on her own.
Lafferty, 27, a college admissions counselor, said her parents divorced when she was a toddler, and her mother quickly took on the roles of both mom and dad.
Life was a constant juggle. With the help of her mother, Cheryl Lafferty, Hochsprung continued her education as a single, working mom. Sometimes that meant later dinners, night classes or Hochsprung having to complete her college work assignments in the bleachers while cheering for her daughters.
"There weren't enough hours in the day to do all the things that she did," Lafferty said. "I think she had this desire to show my sister and I that nothing is out of reach as long as you worked hard and were a good person."
Naugatuck's mayor, Robert A. Mezzo, acknowledged her struggles.
"She worked from humble beginnings to become one of the most respected educators in the state," Mezzo said.
But no matter how busy she was, Hochsprung always put her own children first. Lafferty said her mother never missed their school events or games. And when they were ill, Hochsprung's world of staff meetings, carpooling, test grading and homemaking turned into days of nursing and cuddling under the covers.
Years later, Lafferty recalls only the good parts of her difficult bout with pneumonia at age 10.
"She laid in bed with me all day and read 'Harriet the Spy' books over and over again to me," Lafferty said. "Sure, she had a classroom of children waiting to be taught. But her kid was sick. We have been her No. 1 priority since she was 18."
Colleagues said she had that a similar devotion to her students.
Since the shooting Friday, there have been numerous stories of Hochsprung's care and attention to students and staff members in all the schools she worked at since becoming an educator.
And on her last day, she provided the greatest example of her loyalty yet.
Lafferty, her sister, and Hochsprung's husband raced to Newtown and ran hand-in-hand up a hill toward the school after hearing about the shooting. Lafferty prepared herself for the worst after hearing a news report quoting a witness describing the evacuation of the school as "chaotic." Her mother was always well-organized.
"That's not a good sign,' I thought," she said. "There's no chaos in her life."
She recalled how a parent at the scene covered his child's mouth when they asked whether the principal had been shot. After waiting for hours at the nearby firehouse for a sign of some good news, one official told the waiting families of how two adult survivors were found.
"They told us they found two adults hiding in a closet," Lafferty said. "But I knew my mom wasn't one of them. There is no way my mom would be hiding in a closet while that was going on at her school."
Lafferty said Hochsprung's husband was later told by a survivor that after hearing loud noises in the front of the school, Hochsprung told the other staff members to hide.
"She then went charging out of the office and into the hallway," Lafferty said.
And into the gunfire.
Lafferty said while she is proud of her mother's acts that day, she admits over time, on the days when the loss weighs heaviest, "I may hate her for it."
For now, she's holding on to parts of her mother in any way she can, no matter how insignificant they may have seemed before.
The smell of her mother's newly laundered bedsheets.
The taste of her Dutch apple cake and broccoli cheddar soup.
How she would try to sing Billy Joel songs in the car during sibling arguments.
There were many things Hochsprung said or wrote to her daughters in notes and letters they now cling to.
In tough times and when miles would separate them, Hochsprung would tell her girls: "You're never alone. It doesn't matter how far away you are. I am with you," Lafferty said.
Yet Lafferty said she learned the most from her mother just by watching her.
"I feel like she never had to sit us down and tell us what to do. We just watched her."
Hochsprung could also be tough.
She banished a neighborhood kid from her front porch one time for using curse words. And she refused to cave in and subscribe to cable television when the girls were young.
"If we got bored, she would say, go find a book, kid," Lafferty said.
But mostly, things were light with Hochsprung. She often joked that any problem could be solved with chocolate, one of her favorite things.
"She would end conversations with, 'Let's go have some chocolate,' " said Katie Singley, who worked as a teacher's aide at a school in Bethlehem where Hochsprung was a principal from 2004 to 2007 before she went to Sandy Hook.
Singley, 34, said Hochsprung's forward-thinking approach to education helped inspire her to become a teacher.
"She wasn't a principal who just sat in her office all day," Singley said. "She wanted no part of the old mentality of 'I'm going to stand up here and lecture and you have to listen.' She wanted the classes to be divided up into groups, she wanted the kids interacting."
Hochsprung took a personal interest in her employees, so much so that it changed the course of some of their lives. In addition to encouraging her to become a teacher, Hochsprung played matchmaker for Singley, introducing her to journalist Paul Singley, who was at the school covering an event for the local newspaper in November 2005.
The couple married three years later and now have a young daughter.
"She gave me the greatest gift anyone has ever given me," an emotional Paul Singley, now a senior editor for the online news service Patch.com and an adjunct professor at a local community college, told the hundreds gathered in Naugatuck on Tuesday night. "I look at my daughter and I can't help think she gave me another great gift in this world."
Hochsprung eventually found love, too.
While working as an assistant principal at a Danbury school, she met George Hochsprung, 70, a former Teacher of the Year who taught gifted students, and a father of three. She was drawn to his methods of teaching and eventually – after five wedding proposals – to him.
"He was the greatest thing that ever happened to her," Lafferty said.
For one anniversary, Hochsprung showed her love — and wit — by cutting off her beloved long hair.
"George loved her hair short," Lafferty said. "She chopped it all off and gave it to him in a bag."
The couple married on May 24, 2003, aboard a charter boat docked at Mystic Seaport. When it started to rain during the ceremony, the soon-to-be Mrs. Hochsprung, a blissful bride in a flowing white cape, turned to her girls and said, "No, it's not rain, it's sea spray."
The couple took salsa and ballroom dancing classes and learned how to sail before buying a 36-foot boat they took on excursions to Martha's Vineyard, Port Jefferson, N.Y., and Watch Hill, R.I. Recently, they traded in the boat for a lake house they built in upstate New York.
Dawn Hochsprung was working toward earning a Ph.D. at Russell Sage College in New York at the time of her death. Her plan was to move to her dream house with her husband a home that sits next door to the home of her own mother, Cheryl — and work at a school in the area.
Though a gunman dashed those dreams, Lafferty said the family still has plans for the home. She wants to get married there this summer to her fiance, Christopher Smegielski. She's optimistic that memories still can be made in her mother's dream home.
Optimism, she said, is one of her mother's legacies that she hopes to keep in spite of the heartache the family is now enduring.
As the rain became more steady at Tuesday night's vigil, soaking gatherers' hair and coats, Lafferty clutched her grandmother close and whispered, "It's not rain, it's sea spray."
The family has set up the Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung Memorial Fund at Waterbury Connecticut Teachers Federal Credit Union. For donations or information, please visit http://www.wctfcu.com or WCTFCU, P.O. Box 2121, Waterbury, CT, 06722.
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