Family members of the six adults killed in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting gathered at the White House Friday as President Barack Obama bestowed the nation's second-highest civilian honor on their fallen relatives.
One by one, Obama read the names of the six educators receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal, saying they had no idea when they woke up on a chilly December morning of the sacrifice they would soon make for their communities.
"They could have focused on their own safety, on their own well-being. But they didn't," Obama said. "They gave their lives to protect the precious children in their care."
For all the grief-filled vigils and agonizing funerals that have marked the two months since a shooter killed the six adults and 20 first-graders at the school, Friday's ceremony was markedly optimistic. In place of tears, there were smiles on the faces of some of the victims' relatives, as Obama presented the medals in a memorial affirming the devotion to citizenship he said the six exemplified.
"It defines our way our life," Obama said. "It captures our belief in something bigger than ourselves — our willingness to accept certain obligations to one another and to embrace the idea that we're all in this together."
Two of the educators honored, principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach, are believed to have lunged, unarmed, at the gunman to try to stop him. Another, teacher Victoria Soto, reportedly hid children in a closet. Lauren Rousseau read to her students as a gunman invaded the school, doing her best to keep them calm. Rachel D'Avino and Anne Marie Murphy were said to have wrapped their arms around the children as chaos ensued.
Among the 18 people honored Friday was Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a renowned pediatrician who developed a leading behavioral test for newborns. He created the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale, which hospitals across the country use to detect physical and neurological abnormalities. Another medal went to former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford, a volunteerism advocate who advised Martin Luther King Jr., helped form the Peace Corps program and was a leader in higher education.
Obama credited another honoree, Jeanne Manford, with inspiring a movement. In the 1970s Manford launched a campaign for tolerance for gays and lesbians after her son, Morty, was assaulted at a gay rights demonstration. She created a support group that evolved into Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a national organization that now has more than 350 chapters. Manford's daughter accepted the award on behalf of her late mother.
"These folks participate, they get involved, they have a point of view," Obama said. "They don't just wait for somebody else to do something, they go out there and do it, and they join and they become part of groups and they mobilize and they organize."
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2012 Citizens Medal Recipients: http://1.usa.gov/TVwfQ6