By JOSH KOVNER, firstname.lastname@example.org
10:17 AM EST, January 3, 2013
It could have been one of the best days of her life.
At the very least, Dec. 14, 2012, was shaping up nicely as a window into just how far 30-year-old Lauren Gabrielle Rousseau had come in recent months.
For six years, Rousseau struggled to find a niche in an unforgiving economy. She got her master's degree from the University of Bridgeport in 2006, just before the recession hit and teachers were being laid off. So she worked shifts at Starbucks in Danbury and weekends serving wedding parties at the Fox Hill Inn in Brookfield to supplement her $75-a-day pay as a substitute teacher.
After school, she'd drive from Newtown, or New Milford, or wherever she happened to be working, to the Starbucks parking lot. She'd put on her black top and visor in the car, and carried her black pants to finish changing inside. During 2006 and early 2007, she also battled thyroid problems and had to have surgery.
It helped that she still lived in the sprawling, warmly decorated Victorian house she was born in, and got a tremendous amount of emotional support from her mother, Terri Rousseau; her stepfather, Bill Leukhardt; her father, Gilles Rousseau; and his wife, Joyce.
Still, it was a hard hustle. At least twice, she was a finalist for the only full-time teaching position in a district but wasn't chosen. But she never let go of her dream to be a full-time school teacher with her own classroom, making a living doing what she loved.
In October, Rousseau took a big step forward. She was given a full-time assignment as a "building sub" at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, meaning that she showed up for work every day and filled in where she was needed.
On Dec. 14, she took over a first-grade class for a teacher out on leave.
She also had another job prospect on the horizon. She'd applied to be a full-time reading specialist in the Region 14 school district. Her mother said that with Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung pushing for her, it appeared that she was going to get that position.
She'd also found love in her life. She met Anthony Lusardi of Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., through a dating site called PlentyofFish.com.
Although painfully shy, Lusardi reached out to Rousseau after seeing her profile and picture on the dating site. The photo was of Rousseau in a red bridesmaid's dress, holding a glass of wine and beaming.
"She looked so happy. She seemed to be enjoying life so much,'' said Lusardi, 30.
They celebrated the one-year anniversary of their relationship in November and were talking about getting an apartment together, complete with a Dachshund puppy.
"Lauren had already imagined the color of the walls, which rugs she'd use, and we thought of a name for the little Weiner dog, Pork Chop,'' said Lusardi. "She really liked to plan things down to the 'T.'"
"Lauren was great,'' he said. "I saw myself with her for years to come.''
It was the first serious relationship for either of them.
"They were a good fit,'' said Lauren Rousseau's uncle, Steve Bomgardner of Bethlehem, Pa., who hosted Lusardi and Rousseau at his home this past Thanksgiving.
"They both had a comical, quirky, funky side to their personalities,'' said Bomgardner.
On Dec. 14, Rousseau had planned to meet up with Lusardi and one of her best friends, Kari Stewart, a school guidance counselor in New Milford, to see "The Hobbit" in Danbury that night to celebrate Stewart's birthday. Then the three, along with about 15 other friends of Rousseau's and Stewart's, were going to go for a few drinks at Rosy Tomorrows.
The trio were pushovers for all things Tolkien and Harry Potter-ish. Rousseau had made cupcakes for the whole group that night, with plastic pictures of the Hobbit characters embedded in the frosting.
"Lauren was happy. Her life was coming together for her, and that day was going to be a reflection of that,'' said Lusardi.
The two exchanged text messages on the morning of Dec. 14, as they did every morning. Lusardi asked her if she was ready for the big night.
"Of course I'm ready,'' Rousseau had replied. "Woot! Woot! Let's go!''
That was 8:58 a.m. It was her last text message to Lusardi.
About 30 minutes later, gunman Adam Lanza blasted his way into Sandy Hook Elementary. He entered Rousseau's classroom and killed her and all but one of her students, who somehow survived the shooting. Lanza killed 20 children in two classrooms and shot six adults to death before killing himself.
Rousseau's family and friends would not learn for certain what had happened to her until after midnight.
"We were all just waiting, waiting, waiting,'' said Stewart, who roomed with Rousseau when the two were undergraduates at UConn.
"Tony and I … we were trying to stay hopeful. Maybe she was hurt ... maybe she was just in shock. But then the police asked Terri for pictures of Lauren. It was just so, so hard to hear what happened,'' said Stewart.
"I thought she might still be coming home, maybe hysterical, you know?" Lusardi said. "But she never came home.''
Terri Rousseau sat on one of the big puffy couches in her house, her daughter's scrapbook open on her knees. Leukhardt, a reporter at The Courant, had his hand on her shoulder. Her eyes glistened as the memories tumbled out.
"She sparkled," said Rousseau. "She was just a smiling, bouncing little girl, loving to everyone.''
Rousseau said that when her son Matthew was born, Lauren thrilled at having a brother and remarked that she "was happy God gave her a brother willing to play Barbies.'' But enough was enough. When Rousseau became pregnant again, Lauren announced that she wanted a sister. When the sonogram showed a boy, Lauren suggested letting his hair grow and putting him in dresses. But it wasn't long before Lauren was loving Andrew as much as Matt, Rousseau said.
Years later, Lauren went to the newsroom of the Danbury News-Times, where Terri Rousseau is an editor, on the occasion of her mother's birthday.
"She brings a Costco cake and green-tee frappuccinos from Starbucks and balloons and a card and presents,'' said Rousseau. "I have to say I was a little embarrassed. But it was so touching. So Lauren, and, of course, the whole newsroom is eating the cake.''
Rousseau said she should have expected as much from a daughter who spent hours crafting holiday cards to her friends, all of them featuring her beloved cat, Laila.
The Rousseau-Leukhardt family is caring for Laila now.
Gilles and Terri Rousseau had divorced when Lauren was 10.
Gilles Rosseau, a wedding and portrait photographer, said he recalled being a little awed as he watched Lauren guide her students through a classroom presentation a few years ago.
"I was her photographer. There she was, handling 20 or 30 children with ease. It's always amazing when you see your little daughter doing something like that,'' he said.
After she got the job at Sandy Hook, "Lauren would call me most every day on the way to or from school to tell me, in detail, about the children and her classes. I loved to listen, but sometimes, after 30 minutes, I'd have to say, 'Lauren, I have to get some of this work done.' She also talked a great deal to my wife, Joyce, who is a retired teacher. 'What would you do here, Joyce?' 'How would you handle this?' I think she was having the best time of her life as a teacher. She was very happy about that, and her relationship with Tony. She had love in her life."
In the 1970s and '80s, the Rousseaus rented rooms in their home to students at nearby Western Connecticut State University.
Two of them, Pete Shaker and Chris Booth, became particularly close to the family. They were so attentive to Lauren as an infant and toddler that Terri Rousseau bought them T-shirts that proudly proclaimed "Uncle Pete" and "Uncle Chris."
The two lived in the house for seven years. Shaker went off to the Peace Corps, and Booth went into publishing in New York City.
Booth hadn't seen Lauren or the Rousseau family for more than 20 years when he heard the news about the massacre in Newtown. He was shattered.
"It was one of the great joys of my life to have known her,'' said Booth, who now lives in Storrs and has a daughter of his own.
"I watched her go from a tummy bump to an extraordinary little person with an alertness and an intensity about her that was remarkable. I changed her diapers. I fed her. That experience touched me in a profound way."
"The two greatest titles of my life were 'baba', which is what my daughter called me, and 'Ish,' which, at the time, was Lauren's way of saying 'Chris.''' he said.
Booth went to Lauren Rousseau's funeral. He looked at a photo board with snapshots of Lauren as a toddler, flanked by himself and Pete. He broke down into sobs.
Later, at Terri Rousseau's house after the services, Booth moved aside his black tie and unbuttoned his white shirt.
There was the T-shirt.
The World Reached Out
The deaths of the 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary touched off a worldwide outpouring of sympathy and support through Facebook postings and acts of kindness.
On the day of Lauren Rousseau's funeral services, thousands of people wore purple, her favorite color.
"We were anonymous, now people are saying her name all over the universe,'' said Terri Rousseau. "The world reached out its arms and put us in a hug.''
Lauren Rousseau was passionate about animals, and access to health care, and gun control, and child poverty, among other issues.
"There are so many ways we can reach out in Lauren's memory,'' said Terri Rousseau, her voice finally breaking, the tears streaming.
"I want to do the things she would have done. I want her to see it as she looks down on us."
"I want her,'' the mother said, "to be proud of me.''
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