Finding a personal connection amid the tragedy

Anne Marie Murphy, victim of the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut shooting.

I remember where I was when I first heard the news of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

I was about 25 miles away at a Christmas party, when a columnist came in and said “there was a shooting in Newtown, maybe at a school.”

We took in the news, but didn’t put down our forks. Even then, the thought was, “Oh, just another random shooting.” It’s that easy to be jaded.

As the day went on, the magnitude of the horrific incident unfolded.

On the morning of Dec. 14, Adam Lanza, 20, killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Twenty of the slain were first-grade students. Others were teachers and aides. Earlier that morning, Lanza had also killed his mother in their home. He later took his own life.

My reactions Thursday in Oregon were similar to those I felt in December 2012.

After all, it was supposed to be something of a festive day in the state, marking the first day of recreational marijuana sales, the end of a fight that had divided citizens for years and backed up city council calendars like a clogged water pipe. That Thursday night, we were prepared for the somber airing of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Unprepared,” the documentary on the threat of a Cascadia Subduction Zone megaquake. Enough gravitas for one day.

Then the news.

Not another campus shooting.

Not to hear the news from the small city of Roseburg in central Oregon.

Yet that was exactly what we were hearing. As the day unfolded, we learned a 26-year-old man had shot and killed nine people in an introductory English composition class at Roseburg’s Umpqua Community College before dying, either in a shootout or by his own hand.

Media briefings flowed in from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. CNN, Fox, MSNBC — all were there. The shooter, Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, was described as a California transplant with a fetish for military gear and weapons. A loner. Nobody knew much about him.

In hours, the incident spurred gun debate anew, brought President Obama and the National Rifle Association to the fore, and invoked Sandy Hook, Aurora, Colorado, and Virginia Tech.

And then we on the coast received concerned calls and emails. To many people outside the state, Roseburg might as well be Portland. “Was this near you?” “Are you all right?” “God, how horrible!”

I barely know Roseburg, other than for its proximity to Eugene, where my son went to college. I think we’ve driven through it a couple of times. Roseburg sounds like a nice, family community, a lot like Newtown.

In reality, Oregon is a big state and Roseburg is far away from Clatsop County.

So I told my concerned East Coast friends, “No, it wasn’t near us. We are all right. And yes, it was horrible.”

It all felt so glib and impersonal, as if it was just another layer of cushion from tragedy.

Then I remembered the aftermath of Sandy Hook. One of the victims, Anne Marie Murphy, was a local resident. Murphy, 52, was employed by the Newtown Board of Education as a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary. She happened to be the sister of my dentist, and although she had lived in Newtown for 14 years, she was born and raised in our little New York community. Her body was found cradling 6-year-old special-needs student Dylan Hockley, who also died in the massacre.

The Roman Catholic Church held a funeral Mass six days later. It was filled to overflowing with people who remembered her. The Archbishop of New York, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, conducted the funeral. In an obituary, Anne Marie Murphy was remembered for her love of the arts, walks in the outdoors and, most importantly, her family.

Later Thursday afternoon, a man came into The Seaside Signal office and had a hollow look on his face. “I went to that college, you know,” he said. “It was 30 years ago. But I went to that college.”

It was this connection — tenuous as it might be. Much like that we felt with Anne Marie Murphy in our New York town, that we both dread and yet need. We need something to link to our personal core, a connection, slim as it might be, of a friend of a friend, someone we once worked with or just recognition of a place we passed through and stopped for lunch.

My connection, this time, is Oregon. No state has a stronger identity. Like everywhere, the line “It can’t happen here” is a tired cliché. We all know it can. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

R.J. Marx can be reached at rmarx@cannonbeachgazette.com.

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