500 Miles Away
Milwaukee's reaction to Newtown simmered under the surface this weekend.
Sunday's UW-Milwaukee graduation at the U.S. Cellular Arena
Friday's shooting in Newtown, Conn., was a catastrophe of CNN proportions. It was a shared national tragedy, an occasion to cry, actually cry as a single country, and to sit silently on Sunday evening as Barack Obama, speaking at an interfaith vigil in Newtown, read the names of all 20 of the children who died. In a sternly reverent speech, he laid the table for political reform ("Surely we can do better than this") and described the stakes of the coming debate without hazarding to propose actual policy changes. It wasn't yet the time or the place.
In Milwaukee and Wisconsin, the political reaction to Newtown's horror was similarly understated. Members of both parties emailed out brief statements of remorse and sympathy. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, in speaking with the Journal Sentinel, offered up a list of policy changes intended to limit access to guns, but they seemed far-fetched appearing in a story next to comments from State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). The North Shore Republican (and incoming co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee) suggested revisiting the state's ban on carrying concealed weapons in schools, to allow staff to defend itself.
For lots of Milwaukeeans, Connecticut's grief was never far from mind this weekend, and occasionally our share of the loss rose to the surface. Some of the city's most memorable reactions came not from politicians but from communities that interrupted annual traditions to pay homage to Newtown's bravery, or to simply recognize its suffering. It's late December, after all, when social and religious calendars swell to ungainly proportions, and we all try our hardest to have festive, relaxing fun.
At UW-Milwaukee's annual graduation ceremony on Sunday, I spotted a pink crucifix taped to a woman's black mortarboard, and the letters G-O-P-A-C-K taped to another. Stephen Marcus, chairman of the Marcus Corporation, delivered an upbeat commencement address in a neat 15 minutes, and parents seated stories-high at the U.S. Cellular Arena struggled wildly to get their graduates' attention, just as graduates searched the stands for a parent, a loved one or a friend.
Newtown peeked through twice: when Chancellor Mike Lovell opened the ceremony with a moment of silence honoring the victims, and when Carol Colbeck, dean of the School of Education, introduced her school's latest crop of master's graduates. She said that teachers give their talents, their energy, "and in rare occasions, even their lives," to their profession.
On Friday night -- mere hours after the shooting -- the large Reform synagogue in Fox Point, Congregation Shalom, met as planned for a Hanukkah service and an oneg -- a gathering with food -- headlined by a visiting magician, Ben Seidman.
The service carried on Newtown-free until Senior Rabbi Ronald Shapiro, standing at the front of the facility's main sanctuary, broached the morning's horrific news. "Something happened today in Connecticut, and it was kind of a sad thing ... What happened today is that people got hurt," he said. "There are a lot of people tonight who know there is darkness in the world.
"How long will it take before the world realizes how precious every single child is?" he went on, before moving in a happier direction.
"If Hanukkah represents anything, it means that even when sad things happen ... there is always hope."
After the service, Seidman was a hit, particularly among the children in attendance. They crowded around the stage, giggled, shrieked, and ran up to steal his shoe when he took it off for a gag.
He said he wasn't used to doing "family shows," but he seemed to adapt quickly. He made a balloon-animal dog that performed tricks, stole a $20 bill from a sealed envelope, and in an illusion that defies explanation, caused a solid rope to pass through his body. (It was truly a marvel.)
Then everyone had a last pass at the sweets tables, bundled up and went home. Parents tucked their kids safely into back seats and perhaps drove more slowly than usual.
Perhaps they were still thinking about Sandy Hook Elementary School, like the rest of the country.