Anne Marie Murphy was 52 years old, the mother of Kelly, Colleen, Paige and Thomas, as well as the wife of Mike. Her 86-year-old mother, Alice McGowan, herself, the mother of seven, said straightforwardly: “She was a very good daughter, a good mother, a good wife.”
But the reason we know her is because Annie, as she was called, was the special-education teacher in Sandy Hook Elementary School who was killed in the Slaughter of the Innocents on Dec. 14, and who died with her arms protectively cradling a 6-year-old boy named Dylan Hockley.
Dylan had learning disabilities, and Annie worked with him one-on-one. His parents said in a statement: “We take great comfort in knowing that Dylan was not alone when he died, but was wrapped in the arms of his amazing aide, Anne Marie Murphy.” They added: “Dylan loved Mrs. Murphy so much and pointed at her picture on our refrigerator every day.”
Six teachers and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School died that day. The principal, Dawn Hochsprung, 47, ran straight toward the shooter, trying to stop him, and was shot to death. The school psychologist, Mary Sherlach, 56, tried as well, and paid with her life.
By standing between the gunman and her 6-year-olds, Vicki Soto, 27, spared at least some of their lives while surrendering her own. Lauren Rousseau, 30, who had just been hired last month and was doing what she most wanted to do — teaching children — died from gunfire, as did 29-year-old Rachel D’Avino, who was studying for her doctorate while pursuing her passion of helping children with autism.
We will probably never know just how many children’s and adult’s lives were saved by the courage and selflessness of these six heroines and their surviving colleagues on the school’s faculty and staff.
What we do know is that Heraclitus was right some 25 centuries ago when he wrote, “Character is destiny.” The grown-ups of Sandy Hook, from everything we know, were — in those moments of maximum peril, when they confronted their own mortality — individuals of profound character. And let us not forget that they — and the others in that building — were public school teachers, public servants and, that’s right, public employees.
Eleven years earlier, 343 New York firefighters — searching for and trying to save trapped and terrified fellow human beings — had marched into the fires of Hell and the jaws of death. They, too, were public employees. They were also public servants.
Public employees, according to so much cheap-shot campaign talk and too many cable commentators, are some sort of an indolent sub-species. If they are not incompetent, the propaganda goes, they must be indifferent and surly. If they are not unthinking sloths, then they must be overzealous meddlers mindlessly regulating America’s businesses right out of business.
Some of you may remember the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton, when Secret Service agent Jerry Parr, then 50, thrust himself in the line of fire to shield Reagan and shove him into the limousine. Reacting to his agent’s training to cover and evacuate by immediately taking the position between the president and the shooter was 31-year-old agent Timothy McCarthy.
Protecting the president as well that fateful day was a 17-year veteran Washington, D.C., police officer Thomas Delahanty, who had already earned a file of commendations before he was hit by a bullet that had to be removed from his neck. All three men were proud public employees.
In his first State of the Union speech, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed, “Let the public service be a proud and lively career.” You don’t hear such sentiments today from our would-be leaders. But after we reflect on the character, courage and heroism of the teachers of Newtown, Conn., the firefighters of New York, and the agents and cops of Washington, D.C., let us thank our public employees for what they do for our us.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.