Dec. 19, 2012 By Bill Parry
Hundreds of Sunnyside residents took part in a tearful candlelight vigil Tuesday night to honor the lives of two victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy with strong ties to the neighborhood.
The community paid tribute to Benjamin Wheeler, 6, and Dawn Hochsprung, 47, the school principal, who were both killed in the massacre.
Ben lived in Sunnyside as an infant before his popular parents—Francine and David Wheeler– moved to Newtown with his older brother, Nate. Meanwhile, Hochsprung’s sister-in-law is a Celtic Park resident.
Small children, accompanied by their mothers, were out in big numbers last night, with several carrying photos of Ben and the Wheeler family. The Wheeler family remains close to many young families in the neighborhood.
The vigil began at Sunnyside Reformed Church, where the Wheelers were participants of the church’s day-care programs. It then proceeded to Sunnyside Gardens Park, where the family was active for several years.
At the park, close friends and mothers spoke about Wheelers and the tragedy–providing each other with words of comfort. Religious leaders said prayers on behalf of the Wheelers, Dawn Hochsprung and all the victims.
Gretchen Armstrong, a Sunnyside resident who is particularly close to the Wheelers, read a letter from Ben’s mother Francine.
“Sunnyside was our first home as a family, and we will never forget the good times we shared, the friendships that blossomed and most of all, the love and laughter that surrounded us,” the letter said. “Please remember Ben’s smile while you go about your daily lives.”
Armstrong went up to Connecticut when she received the news of tragedy on Friday night. She is a close friend of Francine, as both women helped form Sunnymoms, an online network for young families in the community. Francine, a well-known children’s singer, was also known for entertaining local children.
Roger Hitts, another family friend from Sunnyside, played a recording of Francine singing “Come Sit Beside Me.” In his words of remembrance, Hitts spoke of a central theme of the gathering: “We’re shocked, saddened and devastated. We’re very, very angry.”
Meanwhile, Nicole Perkins Isleib, the step-sister of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of the school who died trying to save the lives of her students, spoke about the bravery of her step-sister. “Everything you heard about her in the news is true,” the Celtic Park resident said. “She died trying to help the children.”
Hochsprung is being buried today (Wednesday).
Neil Margetson, the pastor of Sunnyside Reformed Church, said, “There’s no way to make sense of all this but it was not an act of God, we’ve created these monsters and we have to find a way to fix it.”
Meanwhile, councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, whose staff helped organize the vigil, said, “We’re so lucky and fortunate to live in a neighborhood with so many good people who love their friends so deeply. The Sunnymoms have so much love for David and Francine and I’m touched by this turnout on just 24 hours notice.”