An unlikely firebrand

A sister grieving a relative’s death at Sandy Hook, turns sadness, anger into activism

An unlikely firebrand

Saturday came and went, marking the day a year ago that 20 students and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

But for Jane Dougherty of Littleton, this week marks an anniversary of a different kind – one year since she got her politics.

The unassuming seamstress, mom and grandma stood last December at the funeral service for Sandy Hook’s psychologist Mary Sherlach making a quiet promise to her older sister that she hadn’t died in vain.

Dougherty had no clue what she could, or would, do when she returned home to Colorado. So she followed her gut, which was filled with fury about the easy access the Sandy Hook shooter – whose name she refuses to speak — had to the semiautomatic shotgun, rifle and two handguns and the 24 sets of multi-round magazines he was packing the day of his rampage.

Dougherty’s fury led her shortly after the massacre to the steps of Colorado’s Capitol, where a group of moms, galvanized by Sandy Hook, led a rally for gun control. She found herself being called up to address the crowd. It was the first time she had spoken in public and she had wished she had prepared something to say. But there was no need. The words came easily. Her hands stopped trembling. And, as she stood at the podium that cold sunny morning, she found her voice rising from her anger.

“At first I thought I couldn’t do this,” says Dougherty, 54. “But if Mary can run out in front of an assault weapon, I can work through my fear and stand up there telling people we need a change.”

Speech-making led to press conferences which led to conversations with gun control activists and state lawmakers seeking to pass laws requiring background checks on private gun sales and banning the manufacture and sale of high capacity magazines with more than ten rounds of ammunition.

“At first I thought I couldn’t do this, but if Mary could run out in front of an assault weapon, then I can work through my fear and stand up and tell people we need a change.”

Up until last winter, Dougherty’s politics consisted of voting each election as a registered Democrat. No rallies. No donations. No canvassing. But weeks after her sister’s death – still not eating or sleeping — she was embarking on a crash course in the legislative process. She started with the basics, memorizing the names of legislators, which chamber they were in and which party they belonged to. Day after day, week after week last winter, she met with lawmakers, making the case for a pair of bills to expand background checks and clamp down on high-capacity magazines. By the accounts of even the most ardent gun rights supporters, it was tough not to listen to a grieving woman with nothing more up her sleeve than a wet Kleenex.

The gun control measures passed, albeit with compromises about magazine sizes that frustrated Dougherty. By the end of the 2013 session, the political player by day and seamstress by night had become one of Colorado’s most influential policy voices and one of its most effective citizen lobbyists.

Dougherty didn’t stop after the bills were signed in March.

Last summer, she dove into the effort to defend state Senate President John Morse – one of the strongest supporters of the gun control measures – from a recall effort by irate gun rights activists she refers to as “sore losers.” She took the recall effort personally. And the September recall vote ousting Morse and fellow state Sen. Angela Giron from office came with a bitterness she has now learned is part of political involvement.

“Honestly, it didn’t seem fair. I didn’t think you could get kicked out of office for taking a stand,” she says.

The fourth of five children raised in New York’s Southern tier, Dougherty was three years younger than her sister Mary, whom the family called “Little Mother.” Mary watched out for her. She advised her on whom to trust and whom to ignore in high school. When Dougherty was in fashion school learning the craft of dress making, she sewed her first wedding dress for Mary. She has been sewing and customizing wedding dresses ever since, including the day 31 years later when she was at her Sears Kenmore and her husband called with the news.

There has been a shooting, he told her. She asked where. When he said Connecticut, she turned on her TV. As phone calls from family members kept coming, they pieced together that it was the elementary school where Mary worked — news that they suspected but hoped not to verify. It was easy to imagine that the “little mother” who grew up to raise kids of her own and become the most senior staffer at an school from which she had planned to retire this year would step out of a meeting at the first sound of trouble and be the first to protect her students from a gunman. It made sense that it was Mary. And it was.

The word spread from family member to family member. She’s gone, they told each other. We lost her.

School shootings had long struck a nerve with Dougherty. Her daughters were locked down in their schools the day of the nearby Columbine massacre. And one of her daughter’s favorite teachers tackled down the gunman in the Deer Creek shooting. She remembers sewing her daughter’s wedding gown the morning of the Aurora shooting.

“I felt surrounded by it. I followed those shootings. It seemed like the same story over and over again. And I’d wonder ‘how is this happening, how do these killers keep getting these guns?’”

It was heartbreaking enough that Mary was dead. And that her husband and two daughters wouldn’t have their wife and mom. And that Mary didn’t make it to her retirement, which she planned to spend at the lake house where she and her family had summered as kids. Aside from the gaping hole in their family, what made things unbearable for Dougherty was that she and Mary had been disagreeing in the months before her death. There wasn’t time to smooth things over. There was no chance left to say sorry.

“You don’t think that you’re never going to see someone again,” she says. “It was tough, beyond tough, to forgive myself.”

If there’s one thing Dougherty hopes to impart in the wake of her sister’s shooting, it’s that watching it on TV, imagining it happening to your own family is nothing – nothing – like getting the phone call that makes it real, unshakable and intolerable. Or wishing you could rewind and say what you should have said. Or not being able to remember a time when the worst thing in the world happened to someone you love.  Things won’t change, she figures, if people comfort themselves in the statistical probability that their phones will never ring with such disastrous news.

“People say I can’t imagine what you’re going through. But they need to imagine. That’s the point. They need to imagine.”

Dougherty’s political involvement isn’t so much a choice, she says, as a compulsion – an inability to sew wedding dresses and care for her family without also speaking out about the over-availability of guns and heavy-round magazines that make it nearly as easy to shoot 26 people as to shoot five. She is haunted by the number of bullets fired at Sandy Hook. The assailant shot all of his victims several times, riddling one six-year-old boy with 11 bullets. She describes her involvement as “sad activism”

Dougherty’s three surviving siblings have grieved Mary’s death far more privately. To avoid the phone calls and media coverage of Saturday’s anniversary, the family headed for a quiet weekend retreat together in Winter Park. One branch of the clan, Dougherty’s other sister and her family, arrived late because her son and daughter were under lockdown in their Littleton high school after the shooting at the nearby Arapahoe High School Friday afternoon.

The incident at once deflated and motivated Dougherty who sees fighting gun violence as a labor that — not only as a promise to Mary, but also to herself — she’ll hone as long as her voice holds out or until there’s no more news about kids getting gunned down in their classrooms.

“It has been a difficult year. A surreal year. One that began with devastation and heartbreak,” she posted on Facebook Saturday. “As I look back, I wonder if I made the right choices, said the right words, made any kind of an impact. Did my efforts change any minds? Did my voice touch anyone?…”

John Morse, the senator ousted for his commitment to gun violence prevention, wrote back Saturday with these comments.

“I won’t pretend to fully understand what this last year has been like for you and your family, but your grace dealing not only with losing your sister, but also all the unkindness coming from the gun bullies is awe inspiring,” he wrote. “When I get discouraged in this process, or get angry, and I do—I think of you and your calmness. It centers me. Sandy Hook was the greatest of tragedies because it could have been prevented and I anguish over its existence. But, I am so glad to have you in Colorado not only to remind us that Sandy Hook is real and these tragedies happen to our neighbors and can happen to us, but also to model the way out — the way out of the grief and the way out of the madness.”

[ Image: from left, Rep Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, Jane Dougherty and Carlee Soto, sister of Sandy Hook teacher Vicki Soto.]

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About the Author

Susan Greene

A recovering newspaper journalist and Pulitzer finalist. Her criminal justice reporting includes “Trashing the Truth,” with Miles Moffeit, and “The Gray Box.”
susan@coloradoindependent.com | 720-295-8006 | @greeneindenver

7 Comments

  1. John Stephens on said:

    Great story. Great commitment from a lady who had a personal reason to want change. But what will a magazine ban change? Unfortunately, the answer is that this was a volatile side show that took focus off the much tougher issues. A great chance for needed change, squandered. Of all the things that could have been examined as possible causes of youth gun violence we got a political dog-and-pony show to bust the NRA’s chops and an un-enforcable law. Lord have mercy.

  2. Ryecatcher on said:

    “Bust the NRA’s chops”? Why not just ban their chops altogether. They’re every inch part of the problem right down to the tippy toes of Wayne LaPierre and their idiotic mascot “Eddie Eagle”.

  3. John Stephens on said:

    Ryecatcher, I disagree but think you have put your finger on the problem. They are not the problem, but a distraction that’s getting in the way of any solutions. Please tell me how any discussion about guns and gun rights moves any solution forward. Arapahoe HS is in it’s 50th year. During all 50 years guns have been available to students. I even recall seeing guns in trucks in the parking lot. Hate is a big problem now, and Ryecatcher, you are infected.

  4. ryecatcher on said:

    Mr Stephens. Why is it you and your pro gun ilk always play the “hate” card with anyone who criticizes the NRA or the proliferation of guns in our culture. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this song and dance from pro gun nuts. I had an email exchange with the great state senator Greg Brophy currently running for governor. He said essentially the same thing as you concerning my so called “hatred”. I really don’t care what you, Brophy or anyone else thinks. I OPPOSE the NRA and all they represent and will fight tooth and nail to end their death grip on our political process.

    I can’t believe you could write anything so stupid mentioning seeing guns in trucks in the Arapahoe High School parking lot. Are you kidding me? I’m sure the authorities would be interested in your observations John.

  5. Bill Simms on said:

    ryecatcher,
    People don’t say you are filled with hate because you oppose guns, they say this because you HATE people who think differently than you about guns. You think those people must be inferior to you intellectually, morally and empathetically. Until you can have a rational conversation about the issue then what you believe will not matter. It’s called discussion and you do not care to have one on this issue – you just care to judge others for not sharing your belief system.
    Oh, and there were several high schools that used to have shotguns in their parking lot. When you get up at 4 in the morning to go hunting and then have to go to school, you just lock up your shotguns in the gun rack in your truck. Can’t do it anymore but it was very common ‘back in the day’…

  6. Ryecatcher on said:

    Let me put it this way Mr Simms. You don’t know anything about me. For you to make a preposterous claim I consider you morally, intellectually, or empathetically inferior because your views differ from mine is ridiculous. What I believes MATTERS. What you believe MATTERS.

    I OPPOSE the NRA and will work on behalf of gun control groups, vote for candidates who favor gun control and exercise my freedom of choice to end their influence on our political process.
    You will do likewise for the causes and candidates you believe in. It’s called Democracy and freedom of choice I believe.

    Hopefully that is clear. I have no problem with responsible law abiding citizens owning guns be it for hunting or home protection. I am for limits on the access and purchase of high capacity semi automatic hand guns like the Glock 19 and the Bushmaster AR 15 for starters. Is that “rational” enough for you? Guns are not my thing. Never have been or will be.

    I do not hate anyone. I’m like anyone else however when it comes to judgement. It’s human nature and I’ll bet you judge just as much as anyone else, right? Have a nice day Bill.

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