Preserving the Memory of Newtown

Illustrator and designer Ross MacDonald lives with his wife and two children in Newtown, Connecticut. I contacted him on the afternoon of the Sandy Hook shootings to inquire about his family. They were safe but traumatized. Since the shooting, he has been posting sentiments mailed to Newtown from all over the world on Be Kind Any Way: Messages of Condolence To Sandy Hook. Yesterday, I asked him about the response to this site.

Screen Shot 2013-01-28 at 6.26.37 PM
How long have you lived in Newtown?

Seventeen years

Did your children go to Sandy Hook Elementary?

My kids both went to a different elementary school. We used to go to Sandy Hook Elementary for basketball games in the gym, and baseball games in the baseball diamond. I used to also take the kids there frequently on the weekends to play on their playground – it has a much better playground than their school. My son is a senior in Newtown High School, and my daughter is in seventh grade in the Newtown Middle school. Both schools are near Sandy Hook. My daughter’s school was in lock down for three hours. They were sitting on the floor, forbidden to move or make noise. They knew there was a shooting, but not at which school it was in.

(Read more about that day here.)

I can’t imagine what was going through your minds when this happened. But how long did it take before you put this site together?

On the one month anniversary of the shootings, my wife and I decided to visit the vast display of letters in the town hall. Once we started reading them, we knew they had to be recorded, saved, shared. We spent about five hours there and took over a hundred photos with our iPhones. The lighting in the hall was slightly dim, so some of those photos are a bit blurry. We decided to come back the next day, and spent hours shooting more items with a DSLR. At any given time, there were other townspeople there, reading the letters and quietly weeping. So as not to disturb them, I didn’t use lights or flash. I spent about a week editing and organizing them. Last Thursday, Jan 24th, we got the news that the letters would be destroyed. I set up the site the next day.

Are the letters only kept at Town Hall?

The letters are all stored in a couple of locations – mainly in the town hall, with some in the local library. There are dozens of boxes, each containing hundreds of letters and cards. Volunteers have been opening and sorting them at the post office, and new boxes of letters are brought to town hall every day. There are also two warehouses full of other donations – toys, school supplies, etc.

Screen Shot 2013-01-28 at 6.25.52 PM

Why does the town plan to mulch them? Shouldn’t a record be retained?

After the huge impromptu outdoor memorials had been out in the weather for a couple of weeks, the town removed them, and they will be mulched. The mulch will be used – mixed with concrete or whatever – in some future permanent memorial. The removal of those memorials was very necessary – they were huge, and blocking traffic in the main intersection. To get some idea, here’s a video. This is just one of the corners – all four had large memorials, and they were elsewhere in town as well.

In a somewhat similar way, the boxes of letters are taking up a lot of room – they have been on boxes, on tables lining both sides of the town hall front hallway. They estimate that there’s a quarter of a million. The workers at town hall have told me that it’s very hard to walk by them every day. The town has been deluged by support and donations, and people have been volunteering in shifts to help sort, distribute, and otherwise deal with it all. The town workers and government have also had a lot of additional stuff to deal with after the shootings. I spoke to the town historian about preserving the letters today. He was sympathetic, but said there was no room to archive them, and didn’t seem enthusiastic about keeping them. He is going to request that they give us a couple of extra weeks to photograph more items. As it stands now, they’ll be mulched next week.

What is popular opinion in Newtown about this decision?

I think there are some people here who agree they should be preserved, but I think many people just want to move on. A local photographer friend called last Friday to volunteer to help photograph letters, and has been pushing to save them. We will be speaking to the town first selectman tomorrow, hopefully.

What are the most poignant letters?

There’s so many that are very moving, some that are heartbreaking. Here are two that struck us:




Who do they come from?

Mostly kids, and parents, but also school classes, church groups, parents, mayors, soldiers. There’s one from a inmate in a state prison, another from a mental institution.

What are your plans for the site?

For now, I plan to continue to post as many of the images as I can. I hope if I can show that there is an interest in these, that it will help to save them from the mulcher.

7 thoughts on “Preserving the Memory of Newtown

  1. Patrick JB Flynn

    So very sad, and predictable, this ongoing tragedy of violence, guns, and their apparent stranglehold on our beleaguered nation. Newtown and the nation are in debt to the MacDonald family for showing up, taking time from what I can only assume is an already full life, to present this incredible response from so many caring citizens. I only hope that for once there’s enough momentum among our citizenry and elected officials to push for more sane gun control policy. At the very least, we should all pay heed to an urgent call to action, especially among those dedicated to mental health issues, be it doctor or nurse, teacher or counselor, parent or friend.

  2. Harry

    I applaud Ross and his wife for devoting themselves in preserving these sentiments, can’t be easy to spend so much time deep in the visual manifestation of a world’s sorrow. Moving on is important but of all the senseless shootings we see in America these days Newtown must be the turning point, we cannot forget. Thanks Ross for your time, effort, and thoughtfulness.

  3. Paper Acrobat

    Preserving these sentiments in a digital archive has got to be the right way forward. The physical items can be recycled but the memories can still be perused online by those who wish to see them.
    A very moving story.

  4. Jessica Wood

    This is very important work, and perhaps makes the mulching ok… To have an electronic archive but let the material mass go might be an elegant way to treat these delicate missives. I am an artist, and the simple act of photographing work is key to my being able to part with it. If I did not let go of the physical pieces, I would drown in them. So this work seems essential for both the preservation, and ultimate processing, of these moving sentiments from Newton’s many supporters. Great story, Mr. Heller, and so relevant for creatives who must find ways to manage what they amass. A quite dramatic example here.

  5. Beth

    I’ve always admired Ross MacDonald’s work. Now I also admire Ross MacDonald and his wife. These letters are so touching no matter what, but the fact they’re hand-made, personal, raw, and from the heart make them doubly so. I imagine that when Skylar attached the jewel to the top of the Christmas tree, he/she parted with a personal treasure.