QUEENS — Dozens of mourners gathered in Sunnyside Tuesday to bid a tearful goodbye to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, including the school's principal and a student with ties to the tight-knit Queens community.
Sunnyside residents who knew Principal Dawn Hochsprung, 47, and Benjamin Andrew Wheeler, 6 — both of whom were killed in Friday's massacre in Newtown, Conn. — attended a candlelight vigil Tuesday evening to not only bid farewell to the victims but also recall fond memories of their vibrant lives.
Benjamin's parents, Francine and David Wheeler, lived in Sunnyside before moving to Newtown. They were active members of local Sunnyside Gardens Park and part of a close-knit group of young neighborhood parents who met regularly for celebrations and play dates.
Benjamin was just 7 months old when the family moved. But neighbors and friends remember him as a smiling tot, beloved by his two doting parents and his big brother, Nate.
“He was a very beautiful little boy, very sweet,” said friend Jennifer Busnel. “It was just devastating to hear.”
Hochsprung, meanwhile, had a stepsister, Nicole Perkins-Isleib, who lives in Queens. The principal was killed while trying to stop gunman Adam Lanza from continuing his rampage, according to reports.
“It’s been easier knowing there were so many heroes involved, including my sister,” Perkins-Isleib said at Tuesday night’s vigil. “Everything you’re reading and seeing about her in the news is totally true. She was so dedicated to her whole family, and all of her students.”
At the vigil, the crowd — many of them families with small children, and many pushing baby strollers — met at Sunnyside Reform Church on Skillman Avenue and marched in a solemn procession through the streets, clutching small candles in the cold.
As they walked, children in the group carried pictures of the Wheeler family: Benjamin in a Cub Scouts uniform, holding his mother’s hand; Benjamin and his big brother making silly faces for the camera; a pregnant Francine Wheeler in a bathing suit at the beach.
The march culminated at Sunnyside Gardens Park, a regular meeting point for young neighborhood parents, including Francine and David Wheeler. Years ago, the original members of the "Sunnymoms" — of which Francine, a musician who writes and records children’s music, was a founding member — had thrown a baby shower for her when she was pregnant with Benjamin.
As many in the crowd wiped away tears, family friend Gretchen Armstrong took the microphone to read a letter written by Francine Wheeler, who was told about the vigil and wanted to thank the community for its support.
“Sunnyside was our first home as a family, and we will never forget the good times we shared, the friendships that blossomed and most of all, the love and laughter that surrounded us,” the letter said.
Though Benjamin was too young to remember Sunnyside, the neighborhood was a part of his life, his mother wrote.
“He rode the 7 train every time we visited New York. He was more interested in the subways than the museums and the zoos. And because he always wanted to do everything his brother did, he decided he knew Sunnyside, and pretended that he remembered,” the letter read.
“Please think of Ben with a smile as you go on with your daily lives. When you see dinosaur exhibits or subway trains, elevators, pianos — we recently discovered he had perfect pitch — or anything you think a vivacious 6-year-old would love,” Francine Wheeler wrote.
“We hope he will be with you in your hearts, as he continues to live in ours.”
The group that was so dear to Francine has blossomed over the years, organizers said, from just a handful of parents to several hundred today, with members exchanging messages online through Yahoo! Groups.
“We all had kids around the same age, and we bonded,” said Roger Hitts, a friend of Francine and David Wheeler. “Our kids learned how to play together.”
Beyond the heartbreak, the vigil provided an opportunity to reflect on the days of innocence and bliss.
“I will forever remember the baby shower we had here at the park, right over there where the trees are,” Hitts said.
He recalled the group had chipped in to buy the couple a fancy baby stroller with “all the bells and whistles.”
When they presented the stroller to Francine Wheeler, she was so moved “she burst into tears,” Hitts remembered.
“Looking back now," he said, "it was truly one of the best times of our lives.”