Llodra’s leadership after Sandy Hook shooting recalled
NEWTOWN - Pat Llodra’s experience as a teacher was one factor that helped her lead Newtown’s recovery from the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
But it was grief over her grown daughter’s death in 2009 that taught Llodra that the key to good leadership is the heart.
“Leadership requires three very important body parts - a brain, a heart and a spine ... but the heart is the most important of those three,” said Llodra, 75, who is retiring at the end of her fourth term in November. “You have to know what you are doing, and you have to have the courage to do it, but if you say you are a people-first person, your heart has to be dominant in decision-making.”
Llodra’s ability to lead with her heart and put the grieving families of Newtown first after the worst crime in Connecticut history brought praise from leaders across the state this week.
“There is no one in the world like Pat Llodra,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. “There’s no way that we could ever repay her for what she has done to hold Newtown together and make sure that community survived December 2012.”
Leaders in Newtown agreed.
“I have been blessed to work with some of the finest leaders in Connecticut and this country, and they all stand second to Pat Llodra,” said Newtown schools Superintendent Joe Erardi.
Llodra’s retirement comes at a time of quickening progress in Newtown, which has turned the corner on three important projects in the last 10 months.
The new $50 million state-funded Sandy Hook School opened in August.
The location of the $15 million community center has been chosen, and blueprints are being drawn up for its design.
The land for a memorial to the Sandy Hook victims has been secured, and work is focusing on the final design phase.
All three projects came with challenges that required patient leadership to build a consensus. Llodra’s approach in each case was to encourage thoughtful debate without pressing committees to meet deadlines.
“Pat led the community through the darkest period of time Newtown ever faced — and among the worst times any community has faced — and she did it with dignity and integrity and grace,” said Monte Frank, an attorney from Sandy Hook who organizes an annual cycling event to raise awareness about gun violence. “That is the hallmark of a great leader.”
Llodra’s decision to retire at the end of November after eight years in office opens opportunities not only for Republicans in her own party to seek the town’s highest elected office, but also for Democrats, who did not field a candidate to run against her in either of the past two elections.
“Republicans have now had a first selectman in office for 10 years, and Newtown usually doesn’t stay with one party year after year,” said Herb Rosenthal, a Democratic member of the Board of Selectmen and a former first selectman himself. “So I think the Democrats have an excellent chance of winning the first selectman’s race this fall.”
As for Llodra, a former Connecticut High School Principal of the Year with honorary doctorates from Sacred Heart University and Western Connecticut State University, retirement will be a break from the public service and leadership roles she has filled for decades.
She plans to stay in her Newtown home, working on a novel and writing essays about leadership, leaving only to visit grandchildren or to travel with her husband of 54 years, Robert.
“The world has changed a lot in the past eight years — and not just in Newtown,” Llodra said, speaking specifically of how the Internet has become mainstream culture. “I never had the opportunity to step away long enough get perspective on it.”
Learning from loss
The death of Llodra’s daughter, Sharon, at 44 after an illness came in 2009, as Llodra was preparing to take office as first selectman.
Llodra soon confronted challenges including a $1 million cut in state aid due to the Great Recession, as well as the devastation of three destructive storms.
But it was the horrific slaying of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook School on Dec. 14, 2012, that tested Llodra’s leadership most.
And she drew on everything she had, including her grief over Sharon, her pastor said.
“She was able to understand what it was like to lose a child,” said Monsignor Robert Weiss, the pastor of Llodra’s parish, St. Rose of Lima. “She put all the politics aside and her humanity emerged, so that we saw her truly for the person she was.”
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty agreed.
“In circumstances that would reduce most of us to despair or anger or helplessness, Pat has persevered, demonstrating selflessness, steadiness, resolve, and caring,” Esty said Friday. “We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to her for being an exceptional public servant in the truest sense of the term.”
Llodra said her grief over her daughter’s death is not comparable to the horror of losing a child to murder in an elementary school. Llodra said the Sandy Hook massacre does not define her eight years in office any more than it defines the town as a whole.
But she acknowledged at the same time that the Sandy Hook massacre and the town are inseparable.
“We are compelled to continue our effort to be a place that provides the safety net of support and services for all of our residents, but in particular for those families of loss and the survivors of the Sandy Hook shooting,” Llodra said. “It is a given that it is part of our profile.”
Llodra has already begun handing off information to town leaders about challenges Newtown faces in 2018.
Among the priorities are funding a new police building, deciding how to use empty municipal buildings and stimulating growth in the local economy.
Mary Ann Jacob, the chairwoman of the town’s Legislative Council, who has announced she will seek the GOP nomination for first selectman, said Llodra’s leadership leaves the town with a clear path forward.
“Good leaders like Pat do a great job of putting together teams and processes that can continue the work that was started,” said Jacob. “I think she has left us in a very good position.”