Alumnus helps lead effort to heal hometown and counter gun violence

Journalist Rob Cox ’89 has built a notable career — impressive for the variety of his endeavors and the places they have taken him worldwide. Currently global editor of Reuters Breakingviews, a financial commentary website he co-founded and sold to Reuters in 2009, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Daily Beast, Fortune, Esquire, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle and Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

Cox’s personal and professional focus would shift dramatically with the terrible events of Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, the community where he grew up and where he and his wife Hannah (UVM ’89) moved ten years ago to raise their two sons. Within 24 hours of the massacre of 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Cox and a circle of friends were working to found what would become Sandy Hook Promise, an organization dedicated to healing their own community and doing all it can to make sure others do not suffer the same fate.

Rob Cox will receive an Alumni Achievement Award at this fall’s UVM Reunion/Homecoming Weekend, Oct. 10-12. Vermont Quarterly editor Tom Weaver connected with Cox via email in August, while he was travelling and attending language school in Ecuador, for a discussion of his work with Sandy Hook Promise.   

Vermont Quarterly:  I understand you had just flown from London to NYC and learned of the Sandy Hook tragedy when you got off the plane. Can you take me back to that moment — how you found out and your initial reaction and emotions?

Rob Cox:  My plane from Heathrow landed at 1 p.m. I turned on my iPhone as we were taxiing at JFK and the thing just lit up. Texts poured in, voicemail alerts beeped. I had around two hundred emails.

The first text I read was from a Danish friend: "Please tell me your son wasn't at that school." I had no idea what he was referring to, but the context was harrowing. It is the sort of text no parent ever should receive. My colleagues at Reuters — all of whom were tuned to the television and acutely aware that I was obliviously traveling at 30,000 feet — had emailed me updates, though it was still chaos, with reports ranging from a principal being shot to a whole classroom of children at Sandy Hook Elementary. 

I called my wife, Hannah, who was en route to pick up our son, Sam, from his boarding school, Loomis Chaffee, where he was finishing up his first semester as a freshman. She told me our youngest, Ethan, was in lockdown at the middle school.

We had moved to Newtown in 2004 from London after a decade spent abroad, in the UK, where Ethan was born; and Milan, where Sam was born. When I had left Newtown for UVM in 1985, I thought that I would never in a million years return. But after so many years abroad we wanted to be near my parents. We also knew the community to be tight-knit, the schools to be optimal, and the location perfect — just far enough from New York City, where I keep an apartment, to be outside of the rat race.  

Back on the ground at JFK Airport, I met my driver and hurried back to Connecticut, all the while fielding calls from friends, relatives and other journalists who knew I was from Newtown. When I got home, I hugged my children so tightly I am surprised to this day that I did not break their ribs. I was so thankful that my boys were safe. But, by then, I knew there were 26 families in my town who were not so fortunate.

At that point, empathy, compassion and, yes, anger, kicked in. While I had determined that all of my closest friends' children were fine, a few acquaintances were unaccounted for. We decided to head into town for the vigil at St. Rose, the Catholic church, not because we are religious (or even Catholic for that matter) but because we needed to be with people. The priest read a letter from Pope Benedict. He seemed to be calling us into action when he reminded us that a massacre of this scale was not supposed to happen. It was not a natural occurrence. It was something preventable.

VQ:  It looks like Sandy Hook Promise came together quite quickly. Please fill us in on how the concept came about, what your role was and how the community got involved.

RC:  The following morning, Saturday, Dec. 15, I gathered a bunch of very close friends to come together at Holcomb Hill, a land trust down the street from our home. About a dozen families, with children and dogs in tow, met to walk up to the highest point in Newtown and hug, cry and commiserate with one another.

It was a hard morning. But the conversation continued throughout the day and into the evening. At 2 a.m., one of our friends, Lee Shull, who lived around the corner from the shooter, sent an email out to a wider crew of guys who play pick-up Ultimate Frisbee on Tuesday evenings in the summer. He suggested we all meet the next day to discuss what happened and what we as members of the wider Newtown community, should do about it. About half of the eighteen co-founders of Sandy Hook Promise were drawn from the Ultimate Frisbee gang.  

On Sunday, we met at the CH Booth Library on Main Street in what would be the first gathering of Newtown United, which would eventually become Sandy Hook Promise. CNN had sent cameras to the meeting and broadcast a piece the following day that begat dozens of requests from national and international media, including Japanese, Canadian and Dutch television. My son Sam set up a Facebook page for the group that within days had tens of thousands of followers. Today it has 95,000 followers.

Before the week was over, we held two more public meetings. Both of Connecticut's senators showed up, as did our newly elected congresswoman, as well as representatives from Mayor Bloomberg's office and a victim from the tragic movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado just a few months earlier.   

The streets in our normally peaceful village were still jammed. Hearses ferrying unnaturally tiny caskets vied with satellite trucks, Cadillac Escalades shepherding media celebrities, and the cars of well-wishers from all over the Northeast delivering letters, teddy bears, and Christmas wreaths. And there were a few more funerals still ahead. Yet there we were — six days and perhaps 20 funerals after the shooting — for our third public meeting, assembling folks to discuss how they could work to ensure no other community would ever have to endure a tragedy of this horrifying scale.  

In the hours before that third meeting, a few of us sat around the fireplace at my home to hammer out a mission statement. It was an extraordinary challenge. Though the pain and trauma was communal, the diagnosis for how to prevent something like this was not. To some, the problem was simply a matter of easy access to guns and to laws that fail to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. To others, the root cause was a total failure of parenting. No, this was a problem of school safety, said another. Hold on, the shooter was a symptom of a flawed national approach to mental health. And on and on it went. There was no consensus.

The mission statement we drafted and publicly unveiled at the meeting just two doors down from the children's book section — where Avielle, Ben, Ana, Daniel and their 16 other first-grade classmates had come to discover the wonders of reading — reflected this. It read: "Newtown United stands with the children, the teachers, the community, and the families touched by the massacre of innocent lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14. We are united with the country to drive national efforts to turn the tide on gun violence. We are dedicated to ensuring the senseless act of violence that occurred in Newtown is never repeated."  

After that evening, a core group of founders sat down, and we decided we needed to shut down these chaotic public meetings, and to organize. We had to be open minded and non-partisan in examining the causes of gun violence. And we had to build a platform for those who had lost the most — the families of the victims. Four of us took leaves of absence from our jobs and launched Sandy Hook Promise one month after the shooting, with about a dozen families represented. That was, and continues to be, the guiding mission of Sandy Hook Promise, which is now being led by a handful of the parents who lost children, and counts others on its board of directors, where I am now vice chairman.  

VQ:  The media presence in the immediate aftermath, and for weeks or months afterward, had to be overwhelming. As a journalist, you must have brought a different perspective to this than most of your neighbors.

RC:  It was surreal being both a member of the mainstream media and of the Newtown community, inside the circle of trauma. On the evening of the shooting, after the vigil at St. Rose, there was a huge press gaggle surrounding Father Bob, the priest, including colleagues from Reuters, the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

On the sidelines of the scrum, I saw my friend Dan Holmes, a local landscape architect I had grown up with. We chatted and he told me that he had just a week earlier hung the garlands and wreaths at the Lanza's home. He told me that the shooter's mother not long ago showed him a military style assault rifle she had bought and used to go shooting with her son. We were just two friends, talking. But I realized this information was critically important. I asked him if he'd mind going on the record with me. No problem, he said.

That evening, I ferried a pal from the Financial Times and a Reuters correspondent to the local train station, then phoned in the four or five lines Dan had given me to the news desk at Reuters, which in 2009 acquired the company I had founded, The lines were tucked into the trunk story that was distributed widely that evening. By midday Saturday, Dan told me his phone had ceased to work because of the massive volume of calls and voicemails he'd received from the global press corps seeking to confirm what he'd told me about the Lanzas.

"Dude, why didn't you tell me this would happen?!" he asked me that day. At that point I realized this story was too close to home. I couldn't be a passive reporter — I was an active participant.  

As we developed Sandy Hook Promise's mission and the organization, my understanding of the media, journalists and how stories play out was obviously useful. It was particularly important in the early days, before the families of victims were in a position to act as spokespeople for the movement. In those early months, they were understandably paralyzed by extraordinary grief. Now they are the public faces of Sandy Hook Promise, as they should be. Having experienced such profound loss, they are the credible witnesses and the voices that other communities should heed to ensure they never become members of the awful club that my neighbors and friends now belong to.  

VQ:  How has your education and experience as a journalist influenced your work with Sandy Hook Promise?  

RC:  One of the things that I credit UVM with is instilling a sense of social justice into my perspective on the world. Sure, my parents were formative in this regard. My mother was into the literature of dissent and made me read Cry, the Beloved Country in high school. But I remember being at UVM when the anti-Apartheid divestment movement was gaining ground and protesters had constructed a shantytown in the middle of the campus green.

Though I didn’t participate in the protest, I was drawn to the issue and hugely supportive of the cause. Ever since then, during my time at UVM and later in graduate school at Columbia, critical and independent thinking and the notion that there is something greater at stake in what we do besides making paychecks, have guided me.

VQ:  So often when a terrible tragedy touches a small community, we hear that the place has grown closer. Twenty months down the road from the shootings at Sandy Hook, do you find that's true of Newtown? What is the lasting impact on the community? 

RC:  It's hard to say what the lasting impact will be. As my WSJ op-ed two days after the shooting happily predicted, we did pull together to help each other. The community is cohesive, resilient, and moving forward. But the trauma is real and everlasting.

I am proud to say that most of the tensions that naturally arise from a tragedy like this, particularly when there is an influx of millions of dollars, have been subdued and managed quietly. My family is stronger and incredibly aware of our good fortune. I know my boys see a higher calling to their lives as a result of what happened. They both want to make a beneficial impact in the world, and to help others.

Sam just returned from a week rebuilding homes in a flood-stricken area of Colorado as part of a mission organized by Ben's Lighthouse, an organization founded in honor of Ben Wheeler, one of the first-graders killed at Sandy Hook. The Wheelers have become close friends, and Sam was inspired by Ben's memory. Ethan was a counselor this summer at a camp organized by the Newtown Resiliency Center for the town's elementary school children. Hannah has volunteered a full-time job's worth at Sandy Hook Promise and a variety of other organizations that sprouted in town after the shooting.

It's a family affair, and I suspect it has been like that for many others. My sincere belief is that this next generation of Newtown kids will go on to do amazing things that help people and make the world a better place.