- Mary Sherlach, 56, died 10 years ago when she confronted a gunman in her school.
- Sherlach worked as a psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School for almost two decades.
- Her husband co-founded Sandy Hook Promise and works to prevent future school shootings.
Bill Sherlach knew his wife for 36 years and three days.
He first laid eyes on her at a college Christmas party, and the holidays became their special time.
But a gunman shattered it all the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, when he stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School and fatally shot 20 young children and six staff members, including Sherlach’s wife, Mary Sherlach, a school psychologist.
A decade later, Sherlach still lives in the same house. He works the same job. He sits in a similar office.
But his wife is not there to make the Thanksgiving stuffing. She’s not at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. And she can’t watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with their two daughters — and the two granddaughters she never met.
In her absence, Sherlach has traveled to Capitol Hill and the White House. He’s helped pass four pieces of federal legislation and thwart 11 school shooting plots. And he’s testified against a right-wing conspiracy theorist.
All for Mary.
“It’s hard to believe 10 years. There’s times when it seems like yesterday and times when it seems like forever ago,” Sherlach said. “And it can change on a dime.”
Sherlach, 65, is one of the three co-founders and current board chairman of the advocacy group Sandy Hook Promise – one of the dozens of organizations that formed following the shooting.
As the nation remembers the children and staff killed in Newtown, Connecticut, Sherlach is calling on Americans to uplift his wife’s memory – and to take action in her honor to prevent future shootings.
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‘That was her school’
Mary Joy Greene was raised in New York state by Midwestern parents. She had three siblings and a “grounded demeanor,” Sherlach said.
She was a junior and he was a freshman at the State University of New York College at Cortland when they met at the party. He goaded a friend into introducing them.
“She was an excellent student who ended up spending six years in school instead of four because I wasn’t getting out early,” he said, chuckling.
She was pleasant and attractive, Sherlach said. He loved her smile. She loved to laugh. Together, they made a good team. They married in 1981 and raised two daughters.
Mary Sherlach worked as a psychologist for two decades, including 18 years at Sandy Hook.
“Man, that was her school,” said Sherlach, who lives in Trumbull, south of Newtown.
She instinctively knew how to listen, Sherlach said. She exuded empathy.
“There were people that would seek her out — not only the kids in the school, but staff at times, friends, relatives,” he said.
Mary Sherlach loved children and longed for grandkids, her husband said. He recalled one of their frequent back-and-forths:
“When are you going to retire Mary?” he would ask.
“Well, maybe next year or grandkids, whichever comes first,” she would say.
‘I had to get out of the house’
Sherlach, a financial adviser, was in his office in nearby Fairfield when his partner came in to tell him there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook.
He later learned his wife was one of the first people to confront the gunman, who shot her five times. She was 56.
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In the week after the shooting, “fog” set in as a blur of people brought food and wine to his home. “I was back at work the first week of January just because I had to get out of the house,” Sherlach said.
Sherlach was forced to contend with conspiracy theories just days after the massacre. That’s when Alex Jones, a right-wing radio and internet personality, and others began to lay the groundwork of a near-decadelong campaign falsely claiming the shooting was a hoax.
Grieving families endured “malicious and cruel abuse” and faced physical confrontation, harassment and death threats “on a regular basis,” according to court filings in a later defamation suit against Jones. Some “confronted strange individuals videotaping them and their children.” Some moved to undisclosed locations.
Sherlach said he didn’t want to move. There were too many good memories in his house. And he wanted his kids to be able to return home. Together, they endured a year of firsts – the first holiday, birthday, anniversary without Mary.
Sherlach said he knows most of the other Sandy Hook families. Some left the area. Some started their own organizations. But when a group gets together, there’s a silent, immediate understanding.
“We’ve all become very good friends for probably the worst reason that you can ever envision. And for 20 of those parent groups, they lost a 6- or 7-year-old kid,” Sherlach said. “To see the strength of some of these parents is just absolutely incredible.”
‘Continuing her work’
In the aftermath of the shooting, money poured in from all directions, Sherlach said. He immediately set up a fund, called Mary’s Fund, through the Fairfield County Community Foundation. Mary Sherlach’s sister designed the logo.
“The tagline is ‘continuing her work,’ and that’s what we wanted to do,” Sherlach said. “There’s over $1 million in the fund now, so it will go on in perpetuity.”
Sherlach said the fund has donated $300,000 to a program through Fairfield County called “Teen Talk,” which places counselors in middle and high schools.
The concept of Sandy Hook Promise also emerged early on, Sherlach said. The group formed with the goal of teaching students how to recognize warning signs and empowering people to take action locally.
Sherlach helped launch the organization with two other parents one month after the shooting. Mark Barden lost his 7-year-old son, Daniel, and Nicole Hockley lost her 6-year-old son, Dylan.
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According to Sandy Hook Promise, more than 18 million people have participated in a program that teaches students and educators about potential signs someone may be in crisis, and the organization’s anonymous hotline has received more than 150,000 tips reporting someone who may be at risk of harming themselves or others.
“There’s 11 planned school shootings that we thwarted because the kids have been taught to learn how to recognize the signs of someone in trouble or someone that might have a situation where they would do something like this,” Sherlach said.
Sandy Hook Promise said district officials and/or local law enforcement confirmed the thwarted attacks, which were planned in California, Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Virginia.
Sandy Hook Promise has also helped pass four federal laws, including the Mental Health Reform Act, the STOP School Violence Act, STANDUP Act and the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act – the biggest gun safety package in three decades.
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Over the past year, Sandy Hook families have also claimed several legal victories. In February, Sherlach and the families of eight other victims secured a $73 million settlement against Remington Arms, the maker of the Bushmaster rifle used in the shooting.
Then in October, a Connecticut jury ordered Jones to pay $965 million to compensate Sherlach and 14 other plaintiffs. A judge awarded the families an additional $473 million last month, and Jones filed for bankruptcy in early December.
Sherlach hopes the verdict sends a message to conspiracy theorists and helps protect the victims of future shootings.
Mass shootings ‘out of control’
Over the past 10 years, Sherlach said he’s been devastated to see one mass shooting after another.
He was sitting at his desk on May 24 when he learned a former student with an AR-15-style rifle fatally shot 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
“That was just so close to home, just knowing what all those people are gonna go through,” Sherlach said. “You’re reliving things all over again.”
There are now more shootings on school grounds, with more victims, occurring more frequently than there were before Sandy Hook, said David Riedman, lead researcher for the K-12 School Shooting Database.
There have since been 54 active shooter attacks at schools, according to the database. That’s not to mention the hundreds of other school shootings due to fights, domestic incidents, accidents and deaths by suicide, he said.
A USA TODAY database that uses a narrower metric tracked five mass shootings at grade schools and another two in higher education, resulting in 71 victim deaths, including 48 minors. The database tracks killings in which four or more victims were killed.
“We’ve obviously made net ground along the way. But we’re fighting something that just seems to be getting more and more out of control,” Sherlach said.
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Sherlach’s 6-year-old granddaughter is in first grade this year, and his 3-year-old granddaughter is in preschool. His eldest daughter is a high school music teacher.
“One of my greatest disappointments in life is the fact that Mary never had a chance to see her grandkids,” he said.
Instead, Mary Sherlach’s name is engraved on a memorial that opened without ceremony last month not far from Sandy Hook Elementary, which was demolished and rebuilt.
At the family lake house in New York, Sherlach said his granddaughters paint rocks and place them beneath a memorial tree for his wife. Sometimes they go out to hug the tree.
“They don’t know the aspects of the situation. And, at some point in time, we’ll have to address that,” he said. “They know that Nona, their grandmother, is in heaven.”
Contributing: Mitchell Thorson, USA TODAY
Story Credit: usatoday.com