A Tribute to Newtown’s Leader

While we watch in disbelief the unfolding White House drama, congressional members scurry for cover, and everyday Americans continue to lose faith in leaders of all sorts. There is one individual in America today who represents the kind of leadership we need: Pat Llodra, the First Selectman, or mayor, of Newtown, CT, who recently announced her retirement. Pat helped guide Newtown after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of twenty first graders and six adults. 

I talked with Pat just a handful of weeks after the December 14, 2012 tragedy. She had asked me to help design and lead a process by which the community would decide the fate of the Sandy Hook Elementary School. I soon came to realize that while this effort was about the future of the building, it was in reality about much more: whether a community that had experienced inexplicable trauma and despair could pivot to healing and hope. 

Pat had set up a special task force of twenty-eight elected officials from four different town governing boards, raising the potential for political infighting and grandstanding. The community was reeling. People were at odds over what to do. Gridlock was predicted. Many argued this discussion should wait for another day.

But Pat persevered, guided by a steadfast belief that the community had experienced a defining moment, but that the community would not be defined by that moment.

I watched as Pat, together with others, steered the community forward. She is tough as nails—demanding, exacting, and unrelenting. I had to earn her trust. But she used her persistence to give others strength. She never wavered or whimpered when things got tough. She did not cower in the face of resistance, push back from the community, sheer despair from the families who lost a loved one,  or from survivors and their families. She embraced people, never ran, never hid. She was present, near, always there.

On the day we had planned that a decision about the school’s future would be made, a group of thirty or so Sandy Hook teachers released a public letter declaring that they would never go back to the school. The only private meeting we held was that evening. Before the public meeting, we cleared the room of hundreds of residents and scores of news media and invited the teachers to speak with the task force. 

It was one of the most harrowing experiences one can imagine. Amid the teachers’ shock and tears of recounting their stories of hiding their students in bathroom stalls and supply closets, hearing gunshots echo through the building, and watching loved ones lose their lives, there was Pat: no posturing, no speeches, no demands to reverse the letter. Even though she was sitting across the room from the teachers, I could literally feel her embrace their sorrow and give them the confidence that no matter what she would be there for them. It was not an act of leadership as often written about in textbooks; it was an act of humanity. 

One year after the massacre, Pat called a news conference to implore the news media to stay away from Newtown on the day that marked the tragedy. Most leaders would have wilted in the face of the mounting press deluge and the intense pressure for round-the-clock coverage. Others might have chosen to publicly complain and seek to score political points by bashing the press. Still others might have felt a victim of circumstance with little recourse. I suspect none of these options ever occurred to Pat. Instead, she called the news conference, took her place at it, and spoke clearly and forcefully. She did so not to position herself, but to act as an unwavering, resolute steward of a community about to re-experience its trauma.

The first time I met Pat in-person, I flew up to Hartford from Washington, D.C. and then drove to Newtown. When I walked into the town hall, I saw Pat’s office to my right along with the council chamber where we would eventually hold all the public task force meetings. Before making my way to Pat’s office, I turned to my left and saw two signs on an interior glass wall, both of which I now have hanging in my office. The first read: “We Are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love.” The second was: “Our collective strength and resilience will serve as an example to the rest of the world.” 

Despite the persistent sorrow, grieving and challenges, the people of Newtown have made good on both these powerful messages. My respect and admiration for the community is unending. Pat Llodra helped to lead this effort. She would be the first to say, and rightly, she did not lead on her own; there are many, many individuals in Newtown who helped lead the way. And yet, on this day, I wish to single out Pat as an individual of uncommon integrity and decency; she is steadfast in her beliefs and yet open to hear those of others. She is steady when the winds blow the hardest; and compassionate in the comfort she offers to others. 

America needs examples of good leaders today. We yearn to restore our belief and can-do spirit that we can get things done, together. Pat Llodra is such an example, and she knows what it takes to meet this yearning. She is the best leader I have ever worked with. 

God bless and keep you, Pat Llodra.