A Tour Of A Transformed Town, From A Newtown Resident

Journalist Rob Cox grew up in Newtown, Conn. and moved back after many years abroad. Cox, editor for Thompson Reuters global commentary service Breakingviews, talks about how the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has transformed his hometown.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

We see glimpses of Newtown over the shoulder of the state police officers standing in front of a bank of microphones, or in the background, behind the television news correspondents. It's an idyllic town, we're told. Rob Cox should know. He grew up in Newtown, and after years away, decided to move back. He described why in a piece for The Wall Street Journal called "When Your Hometown is Newtown." He's an editor for Breakingviews, a global commentary service of Thomson Reuters, and joins us by phone from his home in Newtown. Nice to have you with us today.

ROB COX: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And you mentioned in the piece the horror you felt after four kids from Newtown died in a car crash back when you were in school. This must be thousands of times worse.

COX: Yeah. At the time, I must've been about 15 years old, and four of my contemporaries were killed in a car crash. It was a result of a police chase. And I remember walking into the funeral home, and the adrenaline rushing through my body as I saw one of my contemporaries in a coffin. And I thought, my God, nothing worse could befall a town than this. And it's, you now, how many years, 30 years later, it's just amazing how we've escalated the depths of tragedy in our towns in America. And it is just so bewildering and surprising and unthinkable that it could've happened in a town like Newtown, which I know everybody says this and every time there's some sort of horrific tragedy that's befallen their town, this is a pretty special place. It is exactly why I moved back from wandering around the globe eight years ago. And now, we are - you know, if it can happen here, it's really - it's up for grabs everywhere.

And, you know, watching and listening to the president last night, I mean, his challenge was one that I think really struck home not just here, for anyone - everyone in this country. We've done a very lousy job of protecting our children, and things are going to have to change.

CONAN: You have children now in Newtown. That's why you decided to move back there. It's a great place to grow up, you say.

COX: Yeah. That's right. My brother and I both went from, you know, K-12. Like, I came here when I was two years old. And I left for college and, really, I honestly never thought I would ever go back to Newtown. In fact, when I'm - when my children were born - born in London - and we were looking to come back to the States, we came back, visited my parents and, you know, it just struck me that this is - it is an idyllic place to grow up. I mean, there's a strong sense of community, even though, by the way, we're very divided, say, politically. This town overwhelmingly voted Republican in the last election. I mean, I think we - I don't think one Democrat won, whether it was Chris Murphy, who won Connecticut, but didn't win Newtown, or others - local officials, yet it is a very tight-knit community and a beautiful place.

And it's amazing how many people, you know, from high school and people I've known in my past who reached out to me over this tragedy and have expressed their own love for the place, even though, you know, it's one of the things you look back and think I could never have told people when I was too cool for school, leaving high school, that I would ever come back to this place. And we want to bring that back. We don't want this tragedy to change the nature of Newtown, although we know it is sort of irrevocably altered.

CONAN: Take us on a drive down Main Street, if you will, so we can get a better idea. What do you see?

COX: Well, let's start at the flagpole. I mean, this is the iconic flagpole, the very center of the town, on Main Street. You see - if you're coming up from Churchill Road from, sort of, the highway, say, you see that flagpole, and it's, in some ways, you know, it's a real pain for traffic; there's no traffic lights around it. We haven't gotten to that level of technological discovery. But you see the old meeting house, the - which was there. I think it was first actually on the side of the flagpole, moved by a bunch of burly men about 200 years ago to its present site.

At the very top of this, the steeple of that building, you'll see this golden rooster. It's the town symbol. And as I alluded to in my column, General Rochambeau's troops came through here in support of our fight against the British, and they were quartered down the street at the Ram's Pasture. And apparently they shot the thing full of lead. We don't - it's sort of an apocryphal story, but we all like the idea that that's what happened.

Ram's Pasture, which is on the other end of Main Street, is, of course, where you will see - lots of memorials have been set up there to the people we lost. Now, if you go across street from that old church, the old meeting house, you'll see the Trinity Church, where the likes of myself were confirmed. You walk up - you walk towards the Newtown Savings Bank, you'll see a sort of white colonial building. That is mutually owned. It has been since it was set up. So it's not - it's...

CONAN: You're telling me that Jimmy Stewart runs this bank?

COX: It really is a Jimmy Stewart bank. It is owned by the depositors, effectively. All the profits are used towards a foundation that goes towards charities and the community. And then right next to it is the old general store, where I went in today and someone I think in California had generously donated - called the place and said coffee free for everyone on me. And anyway, that is - that's the kind of place the general store is. It was actually used in a Breyers ice cream commercial back in the day when I was kid to show like an oldie time general store. And it's still a place to go and get penny candy, you know, a bacon, egg and cheese, and a coffee.

Right next to that is actually the Edmond Town Hall. It used to be our town hall. It is now - it does have some town offices, but it's more of a facility for, you know, there's a place where you can have parties. There was - my son - my 12-year-old was supposed to be going to a Bat Mitzvah party there Saturday night. And that didn't happen, of course.

Down below is the cinema, the Edmond Town Hall cinema. And that shows movies for $2 and, you know, every night, 7:00 and 9:00, unless there's a really long movie. It might be one night, you know, one showing a night. And those are all out-of-date movies. So you might get something like, you know, as it comes to Netflix or onto DVD. That was a lot easier back in the day, right, when we didn't have all those many ways to watch films. But it's still surprising in this digital age. You know, it gets packed on a Friday and Saturday night. I drive my son Ethan there or Sam and, you know, they get a glimpse of independence by their parents dropping them off, picking them up two hours later and buying candy, you know, for reasonable price.

And then, you know, further up the road, you've got, well, the Honan Funeral Home, which is, you know, going to be horrifically busy. And today was a scene of the first funeral for Jack Pinto, so...

CONAN: And you mentioned General Rochambeau, the Revolutionary War, and 200 years ago the town hall being moved. When was Newtown a new town?

COX: I believe you'd have to call a local historian. Everyone knows him. Dan Cruson is a crusty old guy who used to teach with my father. Big beard. He - Dan Cruson would tell you the exact date. I believe it was 1705 that it was incorporated. You know, it's an old town. It was one of the original towns in Connecticut. And it's still - it's still quite rural. I mean we still retain some of the traditions. It's not - as I pointed out in my column today, it's not a suburban - you know, suburban implies that we've got a Taco Bell and a strip mall and all that kind of stuff. We don't have that. It's the third largest town in Connecticut by land size, the largest in Fairfield County.

And you know, we still have, you know, we have horse farms. We have a couple of dairy farms left. In fact there's one dairy farm, the Ferris Acres Creamery, which people come from miles around it to have their ice cream. It's - they make it there. And you know, and we have hunters. And we have a couple of game, you know, hunting preserves around town. We still are in touch with that part of our tradition.

CONAN: And does everybody's kids - do everybody's kids go to that particular elementary school?

COX: No. We have, I believe, four elementary schools that feed into an intermediate school. So we have the Sandy Hook Elementary School. We have Hawley School, Middle Gate School, and the Head O'Meadow School. And my children went to the Head O'Meadow School, where I actually was in the graduating class when it first - when we first built that building in 1977. I still remember, I think, we buried some "Star Wars" paraphernalia in the front yard.

CONAN: A time capsule.

COX: A time capsule, exactly. But all the kids end up pooling into the intermediate school and the middle school and the high school. So my son Ethan is in the middle school and, you know, certainly a quarter plus of his friends went to Sandy Hook Elementary School, were taught by some of those teachers and had siblings in the school, including obviously some that didn't make it.

CONAN: Yesterday the president was there at the high school for the vigil and spoke, as you mentioned. Has there anything - been anything like that before in Newtown?

COX: No. You know, thankfully, no. But it was surreal and extremely sad watching that last night. And when - I noticed my son, Sam, who's 14, when the president was speaking and specifically referenced Newtown, it just - he went - he could feel it right there. Wow, this is not just the president on television speaking. He's speaking about us. He's in our town. He's right down the street. It is incredibly moving and I think - but I really don't think you have to be from Newtown to absolutely grasp the central message the president put forth, which is that we've done a lousy job as a nation in doing everything we can to protect our children.

And I do believe, I mean I'm seeing it right now, grassroots movement in this town by the people who have been, you know, were lucky enough to be on their feet, to have not lost loved ones, who absolutely don't want this to have happened in vain, who are organizing. In fact there's a whole group called Newtown United, start a Facebook page. They are meeting at the Cyrenius Booth Library, which, again, also going back to Main Street, was bequeathed to us by a woman named Mary Hawley, who's kind of a benefactor for the town. But they have a community room there. Tonight it's going to be packed with people from town. I imagine it will also be swamped with international media.

But I think there's enough people who care so deeply about this that they are - and they realize you have this moment where the world is watching Newtown, and they don't want what happened with Sandy Hook Elementary to just disappear into the ether and then find out, you know, a year from now that something else happened in some other town in this country.

CONAN: We're speaking with Rob Cox, an editor at Reuters Breakingviews. He wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, "When Your Town is Newtown." It was published in today's edition. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And you don't want the incident to be - you want it to mean something, yet you look back at those incidents the president mentioned last night, to Tucson and to the incident at the Sikh temple and to Aurora, Colorado. And no, of course, these incidents can't be entirely prevented, yet those people after that inundation of media will feel like perhaps it didn't mean a lot.

COX: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, look, there are things that can be done. There - we will all know there are be guns in this. We have a gun culture. We have a constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to own guns. The problem is we have got technology from the battlefield that seems to have entered our homes. And I don't think we as a society are prepared for that. Maybe it means we have to erect citadels around our schools. If that's the choice we make - it's not a choice I would make, but it is - it looks like the kind of thing that we're going to have to do if we're going to be able - if we're going to prevent a guy from essentially blasting his way into a school. That's always going to be possible. He's got weaponry that was meant for the battlefield.

Or we find a way to make sure that those weapons aren't available to people or certainly aren't available easily to people, maybe adopt an insurance scheme around the ownership of weapons. You know, there's all sorts of things. That's not for us necessarily to decide. I mean, when I look at the people that are meeting in town to discuss this, they aren't politicized. They aren't trying to push an agenda. They just - they do want to rise to that challenge that we need to do better to protect our society. And so - but you know the policies are going to be come out of this. We're going to see from Diane Feinstein, I think I read, and other places.

CONAN: And there will be others who say, wait a minute, we shouldn't overreact, and we don't need to change these laws. How is it going to change people - the shock, the horror, the grief? Everybody knew somebody. Town's not that big.

COX: Yeah. Look, I think people, even with hardened positions on these things, are just going to have to melt in the face of - you know, when the president read those names out, the 20 names of the children, I mean I honestly can't even get through it myself, reading them. If I were to try to read them out loud to out, I would not make it past three. And I didn't know any of them personally, even, you know, I might have seen them around town. I just - I don't see how this isn't a tipping point. I don't see how people can't look at this and say, we are either going to admit that we're a civilized society and we're going to do something about it to make sure and guarantee that we are, or we just stop using that pretense that we are a civilized society, which is, of course, the wrong way to go. But I just don't see how that cannot happen at this point.

CONAN: Has there been any talk that you've heard over what to do to remember those kids and their teachers?

COX: You know, everybody is talking about it. I mean, there's a - one idea is to raze Sandy Hook Elementary School because it's just unthinkable that people would send - parents would send their children in or - and particularly children who were ushered out of that school have nothing but horrific associations with it. You know, that - they can never go back to that school. Why not raze it and turn it into a playground where children can play happily and safely and you can honor those - what happened there on December 14th. That's one idea.

There will certainly be a monument. There are a lot scholarship funds that are going to be raised. We're - it's still early to know exactly what we want to do as a town. And that's really what Newtown United and all these other groups that are meeting are ultimately going to try to do. They're going to try to figure out what we as a community - and as I said and wrote in my piece in the Journal, it is a very strong community. We have to think about it holistically, about what it is we want to be, how we want to memorialize what happened here and those children.

And you know, frankly, there's nothing more that we can do than change our society in some way, whether it's through legislation or just through the act of showing our love for these children and change the laws that might have actually led - allowed Adam Lanza to walk into an elementary school with a battlefield weapon.

CONAN: Rob Cox, thanks very much for your time today and our condolences.

COX: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Rob Cox, an editor for Breakingviews, the global commentary service of Thomson Reuters. We'll continue to follow the latest developments out of Newtown today on NPR News in ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Read Rob Cox's Wall Street Journal piece "When Your Town is Newtown."

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