By Sarah Bank, Contributing Writer
Hundreds of people filled the Memorial Union Building’s Granite State Room on Oct. 15 to hear a harrowing speech from David Cole Wheeler, the father of Benjamin Andrew Wheeler, one of the twenty children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
The audience varied from UNH students to adults who knew Wheeler. Wheeler, a New Hampshire native, grew up in the town of Durham and attended public school in the Oyster River School District. Many of the adults in the audience knew Wheeler from when he was a New Hampshire resident. A lot of the students in the audience were Connecticut residents, as evidenced by the stories from the Q&A session after the speech.
“He had great energy,” Wheeler said of his son as he showed pictures of Ben, or “Benny” as he often called him, on two large screens on the stage. He also said he had a great sense of humor, was a fun kid, and a gifted musician who, “could very well have had perfect pitch.”
During the talk, the audience was filled with interchangeable quiet sobs and short laughter at times when Wheeler would show photos and video clips of his son.
Wheeler recalled the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, when a man walked into Sandy Hook elementary school and shot and killed 20 children and six adults in the course of 11 minutes.
Ben happened to be having symptoms of a cold that morning, but Wheeler said to his wife to send him to school anyway.
While at work 40 minutes away, Wheeler was getting word of a “serious” incident at the school. When he realized its severity, he left work. “I wouldn’t be back at that desk for three months,” he said.
When he got to the firehouse near the school, Wheeler saw the looks on the faces of the volunteer firemen and the police officers.
“They knew what I wouldn’t know for five more hours,” he said. He would get that fateful knock on the door at midnight.
Not once during his speech did he mention the name of the shooter.
Wheeler also gave some insight into the debate about brain illness and gun violence, since he had people arguing about both issues during his son’s funeral.
Most mental institutions were closed in the 1960s and 1970s. Mental illnesses were treated as “deficiencies of character” and not as an actual brain illness. That was one issue Wheeler wanted to bring to light. It is not a mental thing, it is an issue of the actual brain and he wants to start calling it that.
He wants to start removing the “stigma” from brain illnesses. “We have to change the way we think about brain illnesses,” he said.
He also understands the huge debate over gun control in this country. However, he doesn’t believe getting rid of guns is “practical.” He noted that it is more of a public safety issue.
The issue at hand is to be able to recognize the signs of mental distress and people with “predispositions to violence.” He pointed out that, just like there are signs to recognize when someone is choking, there needs to be a similar one to recognize signs of mental distress.
“It’s a societal cultural change,” Wheeler said. “This mistakenly casual attitude towards these products of maximum lethality has got to change. Our easy, casual neglect of people with brain illness has got to change.”
His conclusion gave everyone in the audience something to think about, with one of his favorite quotes by Sandy Hook Elementary Principal Dawn Hochsprung: “Be nice to each other. It’s really all that matters.”