Seventy miles from where Benjamin Wheeler was killed, mourners gathered to remember the irrepressibly spirited boy who loved The Beatles, sprinting across a soccer field and riding the No. 7 train to Sunnyside.
Hundreds cradled flickering candles as they marched from the Sunnyside Reformed Church to Sunnyside Park – the same grassy sanctuary where six years earlier, Ben’s mother Francine wept as friends gifted her a stroller at her baby shower. It was the park where Ben made his first friends and his earliest memories. Now, it was where they said goodbye.
Ben and 19 of his classmates, along with six teachers and staff members, were killed in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, December 14.
Ben was born in New York City on September 12, 2006. His parents Francine and David were musicians who left busy city life to raise Ben and older brother Nate in quiet Connecticut. Singer-songwriter Francine wrote children’s music, inspired by her boys. At Ben’s vigil, family friend Roger Hitts played her song “Come Sit Beside Me” through a loudspeaker.
Come sit beside me
Hold my hand
Sing me a song
Of the things you have planned
The song, Roger said, now has new meaning.
“They are the most loving family you’d ever want to know,” said Hitts.
Although Ben was barely a year old when his family left for Connecticut, Hitts — who runs a Greenpoint children’s activity center — remembered an outgoing, energetic and sweet child, permanently attached to his big brother.
“They were leaders,” said Hitts. “Nate is a leader and Ben was a leader.”
Before leaving the house for school on Friday morning, Ben proclaimed to his mother that he was to become an architect or a paleontologist, settling on the latter. It’s what Nate wants to do, and as with most six-year-olds, he wanted to be just like his nine-year-old brother.
Ben was a member of Tiger Scout Den 6 which conducted meetings at the Sandy Hook Volunteer Firehouse. His uniform was orange and blue. He still had badges to earn.
Earlier in December, Ben performed in a piano recital, reveling in his ability to sit still through the single piece of music he was assigned to play. Not long before Ben was killed, his parents discovered he had perfect pitch.
“Benjamin began his life here in our neighborhood, in our homes and in our parks,” said Bright Owens, who belonged to a local sisterhood of mothers with Francine called Sunnymoms. “Just as we have plans and dreams for our kids, Francine and David had dreams and plans for Benny. Our hearts are heavy with unbearable grief.”
Sunnyside resident Nicole Perkins spoke of her stepsister, Dawn Hochsprung — Sandy Hook’s principal, killed while shielding students from the murderer’s bullets. Perkins said everything you read and see in the news about the fallen educator is completely true.
“She was so dedicated to her whole family and all her students and she was just really, really vivacious and loved what she did,” said Perkins. “It makes it easier to know she’s such a hero – she went out trying to save people. That’s what we should all do.”
Members of Sunnymoms read a letter written by Francine, thanking the community for their support during such a difficult time.
“In the days ahead when our community comes together to heal from this tragic event, please think of Ben with a smile as you go on with your daily lives,” the note said. “When you see dinosaur exhibits or subway trains or elevators, pianos – or anything you think a vivacious six-year-old would love, we hope he will be with you in your hearts as he continues to live in ours.”