Weeks before Christmas, Mary Sherlach had already transformed her Trumbull home into the picture of holiday cheer.
The red-and-green plaid tablecloth was in place. And there were candles and centerpieces on the tables and wreaths on the door and lights on the Christmas tree. That was Mary, friends said — energetic and ahead of schedule — and the impeccably decorated home was no surprise.
But the image of the glistening tree, and the neatly wrapped presents beneath, is haunting and heartbreaking to those who loved her.
"That's ruined, right?" said longtime friend and neighbor Phyllis Pruzinsky. "Are they ever going to enjoy another Christmas?"
Sherlach, the school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was among six adults killed Dec. 14 in a rampage that also took the lives of 20 first-grade students. Reports indicate that when the shooting began and many took cover, Sherlach and Principal Dawn Hochsprung ran toward the gunfire with an instinct to protect their school. Both were shot to death.
The violence at Sandy Hook took the life of a woman widely admired as organized and accomplished. Courageous and compassionate. Fearless and fun.
She was also the voice of reason and calm and comfort in her circle of friends. Sherlach, they said, was the one who would know just what to say now to guide them out of the fog of inconsolable grief.
"She just had that natural gift and that natural talent for making people feel at ease," said Donna Cassidy. "If you were upset about anything or if you were stressed about anything, she would always make you feel good about whatever may be giving you stress in your life. Which segued right into her being a school psychologist."
Cassidy met Sherlach more than 20 years ago when their children were in nursery school and both were new members of the Trumbull Junior Women's Club, a social and philanthropic organization.
"Mary was one of the first people I met, and she was warm and friendly and vivacious," Cassidy recalled. "She had a smile that could really light up the world."
The two shared dinner parties and trips to the pumpkin farm and Super Bowl bashes in Cassidy's basement. Sherlach was a hard-core Miami Dolphins fan; at her funeral, one speaker held up a No. 13 Dan Marino jersey.
Twenty years ago, the Cassidys designed a road rally competition, with clues guiding participants to various spots in town. Not surprisingly, Sherlach and her husband, Bill, were on the winning team, earning them a coveted "1992 Cassidy Road Rally" T-shirt.
When the two kids were still young, Sherlach announced to her close friends that she wanted to get her graduate degree in psychology.
"She was one of the first women in our group of friends that did something like that, and we were all in awe and inspired by her courage to do that when you have two small children," Cassidy said. "But we knew she would get the job done and be amazing."
Sherlach got her master's degree at Southern Connecticut State University, then followed up with a sixth-year professional degree as well. She took jobs at a psychiatric facility and a group home for disabled adults before becoming a school psychologist. She worked for districts in New Haven, North Haven and Redding, before taking the job at Sandy Hook.
Sherlach, 58, spent the past 18 years helping troubled children at Sandy Hook Elementary and had talked of retiring at the end of this school year. She would have been employed at the school when her killer, Adam Lanza, was a student for an undetermined period of time early in the last decade, but it is unknown if their paths crossed then.
Even the youngest of students can struggle with mental health issues, and Sherlach put together programs for children with divorced parents, worked with the district's safe school climate committee and served on the district conflict resolution committee. She worked at Sandy Hook longer than at any other job.
"I would have guessed that she would have answered the call when the school was threatened," said Cheryl Edelen, a former colleague. "I would imagine that someone with Mary's self-confidence would have thought she could talk him down."
At the elementary school, co-workers were in awe of her organizational skills. Early on, she became famous for her color-coded Day-Timer scheduling book, with school commitments highlighted in one color and family obligations in two others, depending on whether she or her husband, Bill, was handling them.
"I was terribly impressed with her efficiency and her organization. She was amazing," Edelen said.