Heroism no surprise to those who knew slain principal

USA TODAY, December 15, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor

NEWTOWN, Conn. — News that Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung confronted the gunman during the Friday rampage at her school didn’t surprise her former neighbors in nearby Woodbury.

Town officials say Hochsprung, who died in the shootings at the school, was killed while lunging at the gunman as she tried to overtake him.

“I would expect her to jump right into the chaos,” said neighbor Judith Neukam. “I think she would have felt responsible for it and she would have taken that responsibility.”

She said that Hochsprung and her husband, George, were kind neighbors who once helped out when Neukam’s elderly mother fell on ice. Neukam said she lived near them for eight years.

Education was her passion, and Hochsprung frequently tweeted photos from her job and wrote upbeat tweets about what was going on at the school.

In her last tweet before she died, Hochsprung described a non-fiction book preview she had set up for her staff and took a photo of the picture books arrayed on a table. The day before, she praised her fourth-graders for their holiday concert.

Four days before she died, she posted a photo of two kindergarten girls paying for groceries over a toy cash register in a classroom. She called them “kinders” and saw them as “74 new opportunities to inspire lifelong learning!”

More hauntingly, several publications reported, she wrote a letter before the school year outlining new safety measures including locked doors during school hours, and tweeted a photo of students who had been evacuated from the building during a safety drill earlier in the school year.

“I don’t think you could find a more positive place to bring students to every day,” she told The Newtown Bee newspaper in 2010 in a story about the hiring of new administrators in the district.

Board of Education chairwoman Debbie Liedlien said administrators were coming out of a meeting when the gunman forced his way into the school, and they ran toward him.

Jeff Capeci is chairman of the town’s Legislative Council. Asked whether Hochsprung is a hero, he said, “From what we know, it’s hard to classify her as anything else.”

Hochsprung had worked at the school for two years. Liedlien and Capeci said she immediately became a beloved figure.

Liedlien said residents are feeling “a deep sense of loss” over her death.

Several of Hochsprung’s former neighbors in Woodbury described her and her husband as active people who hosted parties for neighbors, shared a passion for education, and had planned to retire in a house they built near their former Woodbury condominium.

Neighbors who still live in Woodlake Condominiums offered kind words. They described Dawn Hochsprung as a woman who had long worked in Connecticut school systems.

Bernardo De Castro, 39, lived next door to the Hochsprungs for more than six years. He said reports that the principal acted heroically sound like the woman he knew.

“She had a very strong presence,” he said. “She was very frank. She had strong opinions. I’m not surprised she stepped out of the office when she heard something was going on.”

De Castro said the Hochsprungs sold their condo and moved to the house last summer. He said that he knew Dawn Hochsprung for about eight years and that she had two daughters and at least one grandchild.

“She was an active person,” De Castro said. “She and George were always helping and engaged. They were always remodeling the house — doing it themselves.” He added that the couple snowshoed in the winters and kayaked in the summers. They hosted parties during the holidays and invited people over for dinner, he said.

“They were great hosts. They would have a lot of food,” De Castro said.

De Castro, a teacher himself, said Dawn Hochsprung worked in the Connecticut school system for several years. She was first a teacher, then an assistant principal at Roger Parks Middle School, then a principal at Woodbury Elementary. Later she moved on to Newtown.

“She seemed to be on an upward trajectory,” De Castro said. “She was working tirelessly and was extremely dedicated to her work. She was driven and very accomplished in her profession. We lost someone incredible for the educational community in Connecticut.”

Her husband is equally as passionate about education, neighbors said.

De Castro said George Hochsprung was once teacher of the year in nearby Danbury.

Family friend Fraser Randolph, 60, of Danbury, said the couple often talked about educational policies over dinner with him. He knew Dawn Hochsprung for more than 15 years.

“She was always talking about education — always looking for ways to solve problems, communicate better with parents and break down administrative barriers to better serve the needs of kids,” Randolph said.

He added that George Hochsprung has been a Danbury teacher for more than 30 years, and currently works at Rogers Park Middle School. George Hochsprung also ran for the school board, Neukam said.

Woodlake Condominiums is a small complex surrounded by woods whose tall, grayish trees match the color of the homes. Dawn Hochsprung and her husband planted trees and shrubs in the common area between the condos. The plants and bushes remained after they moved, a permanent reminder of the neighbors, De Castro and Neukam said.

Contributing: Associated Press; Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY