New Heroes

By Dan Conaway

SCHOOL LESSONS IN HEROISM. On Friday morning, Dec. 21 – one week after semi-automatic gunfire swept through elementary school classrooms and the nation, murdering innocence – one week after a Memphis police officer stood between a bullet and you and me, giving us all she had – a single two-ton bell in the tower of Idlewild Presbyterian Church rang 29 times. Once for officer Martoiya Lang, 20 times for the children of Newtown, six times for their teachers and, unlike anywhere else I’m aware of, once for the shooter’s mother and once for him. Each is the toll of madness, of misplaced priorities and violence, of the belief that more armed violence is not only a righteous solution but a constitutional right. And of a country where it’s easier to buy an assault rifle than vote, easier to buy ammunition than Sudafed.

But in the midst of the wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth and loud calls for immediate remedy that follow tragic events, there are quieter heroes and quieter lessons about how to live in communion with each other.

In this new year, I have new heroes and hope in the face of horror: Steve Vavrek, James Agostine, and 500 locksmiths, plumbers, electricians, and neighbors in Monroe, Conn., who volunteered to work 24 hours a day to turn one of their empty schools into a school for the Sandy Hook kids in neighboring Newtown. They didn’t simply provide space, they converted a middle school into an elementary school to code, raising bathroom floors so urinals would be low enough, lowering all the handrails to be low enough, painting the walls in Sandy Hook’s colors, and jumping over bureaucratic barriers to do it all in days, not months, getting the governor to get government out of the way.

And they sent semis eight miles north to Newtown to retrieve the innocent world of Sandy Hook school and put it back in place. Little desks and chairs, globes and maps, drawings on the doors and windows, posters on the walls. They brought the school mascot, a turtle named Shelley, to live in the library. Just as it should be.

They’re not charging Newtown a penny. You’re my new hero, Monroe.

“They’re going to come back, and if little Chaz had a desk near the window, he’ll have the same desk by the window,” said Monroe first selectman, Steve Vavrek. You’re my new hero, Steve.

When I first heard of this, a blip on CNN amid all the cloying coverage and emotional sledgehammers we were all hit with that first awful weekend, I saw James Agostine, superintendent of schools in Monroe, being interviewed. He was doing fine, until he mentioned having to adjust all the toilet heights because, pausing as tears welled up, this was being done for little people. You’re my new hero, James.

Together, with common purpose and common sense, we can survive. Isolated and ignored, armed and angry, we perish.

I’m a Memphian, and, to paraphrase poet John Donne, the bell tolls for all of us.

Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at