Sixteen years ago Henrietta Beckman’s life was shattered when her 20-year-old son Randy fell victim to the gun violence that has claimed so many others in Hartford.
Beckman and her husband, Ronald, had high expectations for their son, who she said was loved by everybody.
In the aftermath of her son’s still unsolved killing, Beckman joined with other mothers who had lost children and with the Rev. Henry Brown, an anti-violence crusader in Hartford, to form Mothers United Against Violence.
The organization conducts anti-violence vigils in the aftermath of fatal shootings, advocates for tougher gun laws and seeks to let at-risk Hartford children know that their lives have value and that they can do great things.
During that gathering 16 years ago at a North End community center, the burgeoning Mothers United needed a leader. No one was volunteering.
“We were trying to decide who was going to speak up for the mothers,” Beckman recalled. “No one would raise their hand. I was just looking around and I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’ and I’ve been here ever since.”
That night, Beckman said she heard her son’s voice say to her, “Ma, you have to talk. You have to talk.”
To take on the role of president was against Beckman’s nature. She is described by many who admire her as humble and unassuming. She said she is normally shy and does not like to speak.
The vigils and other activities Mothers United engages in are public. But other important tasks take place in private, in the hours after a family has suffered a tragedy. That’s when Beckman and others who have experienced the loss of a loved one to gun violence go to the grieving family to offer help.
Beckman is a retired teacher’s aide and is a familiar face to many Hartford families. She said she goes “to give a hug, give a listen, show support and compassion, whatever it is I can do. A lot of the time I just sit there.”
Debra Davis was grieving the death of her son Phillip Samuel Davis Jr. when Beckman entered her life in January 2010.
“Henrietta … came to my house right away,” Davis recalled. “She embraced me. And it was like God sending an angel. At that point I really didn’t know what to do. It was so much at one time. After she started to embrace me, I started to feel comfort. She really knew what I was going through. She had felt that pain.”
Beckman has repeatedly been called on to provide comfort to mothers and others who have lost loved ones to violence, but she’s been joined in that work by some she counseled, such as Davis.
“She has become a rock for a lot of mothers, … to provide support and the direction we all needed,” Davis said.
Beckman said that it’s frustrating that guns continue to take such a grievous toll in Hartford, but she said she gains strength from her faith and her belief that her son wants her to keep speaking up.
Brown, who founded Mothers United Against Violence, said he thinks Beckman is a gift from God and can’t imagine Mothers United without her.
“She brings understanding to these families,” Brown said. “She tells them, ‘Right now you are in a dark place, but there is hope at the end of the day.’”
There was no such support network when Beckman lost her son, Brown said, and she wants to make sure grieving families received what she did not receive.
“She’s very humble and quiet,” Brown said of Beckman. “You hardly ever notice her in a room. But she’s so strong in the work we do. She really cares about people. And that’s one attribute we can’t teach.”
In the immediate aftermath of her son’s death, Davis said that Beckman helped her. “One of the things she said at the outset is, ‘It is going to be OK, but you will have to go through what each and every one of us goes through as mothers, and that’s a process of pain.’”
She helps grieving family members understand the pain they will feel, but also helps them see that life will continue. “Mrs. Beckman shows us how we can live past the pain and still be able to function, which is really key,” Davis said.
Every time Beckman goes to a grieving family to offer comfort, a hug or just a silent, understanding presence, that awful day in 2002 is in her mind, said Nancy Kirchmyer, who got to know Beckman though the anti-violence efforts of Asylum Hill Congregational Church.
“You can tell when she speaks at vigils it brings it back,” Kirchmyer said. “But she perseveres because she knows they need a voice and they need someone who knows what they are going through.”
And it seems that Beckman is always there to work toward fulfilling Mothers United’s mission, whether it’s a monthly gathering at Asylum Hill Congregational to make necklaces to sell to raise money for the organization, a vigil or a demonstration at the Capitol.
“I can’t believe someone who has had such tragedy in her life can be so giving and kind and relive it with every vigil she takes part in,” Kirchmyer said. “I just admire her so much. I think she makes a big difference in people’s lives.”