Washington — All in all, Bill Sherlach would rather have not been in the ornate East Room of the White House to receive the nation’s highest civilian award from President Obama.
“A total life in obscurity would have been preferable,” he said.
Sherlach, the husband of Sandy Hook Elementary School psychiatrist Mary Sherlach, and the family members of other teachers and staff members slain in the mass shooting, accepted the Citizens Medals awarded posthumously to the teachers Friday.
“They are heroes day in and day out,” said Bill Sherlach, who lives in Trumbull.
Obama, who teared up during the ceremony, said the teachers “could have thought of their well-being, but didn’t.”
“On Dec. 14, 2012, an unthinkable tragedy swept through Newtown, etching the names of these six courageous women into the heart of our nation forever,” the president said.
Also honored were Rachel D’Avino, Principal Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau and Victoria Soto.
The Newtown teachers were among 18 Citizens Medal recipients, a group that included former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford, who helped form AmeriCorps, and Berry Brazelton, a pioneer in child development.
There were 6,000 applicants this year, Obama said.
Sherlach was accompanied by his daughters, Katy Sherlach and Maura Schwartz, in accepting the medal. It is emblazoned with a gold eagle on one side and inscribed with the name of the recipient and “from the President of the United States” is on the other.
He said he “had no idea” what he would do with it.
Sherlach declined an invitation from the White House to attend Obama’s State of the Union speech earlier this week.
He said he prefers to propagate the “Sandy Hook Promise”– which aims to improve gun responsibility, mental health and school safety — and to work on a new foundation he is establishing in his wife’s name to help teenagers get mental health care.
Sarah D’Avino of Bethlehem, who accepted a medal for her sister Rachel, said there was both “sorrow and pride” in the honor.
“If given the chance, Rachel could have received this medal down the line” because of her work with autistic children, Sarah D’Avino said. “This is not the circumstance (in which) she should have received (it).”
She said the president told her “we’re really trying to get something done” to prevent another Newtown.
But D’Avino said the victims of the tragedy should not be used as props in the fight over gun control.
“I would hate that the loss of 27 people would be used as propaganda to get any kind of legislation passed,” she said.
D’Avino said she does support some changes in the gun laws, including expanded background checks and an assault weapons ban.
“I don’t think you should be able to sell your gun as easily as you sell a car,” she said.
Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Reps. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, were among those who attended the ceremony.
Sherlach said Obama asked his daughters to look after him.
“Right now it’s just one day at a time,” he said.
Watch the video of President Obama awarding the Citizens Medals here.