Published June 19, 2014
Tracey Eastman and Melanie Buhrmaster-Bunch have both worked at UB for at least 10 years, but didn’t meet in person until just this week. That’s not uncommon at a university with 6,000 employees.
But what is remarkable is the connection they share to the tragedy that occurred 300 miles away this past December in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Eastman and Buhrmaster-Bunch each had a close relative who was an educator in the district. Eastman’s brother-in-law, Charles “Chip” Dumais, is the principal of Newtown High School. The morning of the Dec. 14 shooting, Eastman heard on the radio only that a Newtown principal had been shot. Eastman and her family were frantic until Chip emailed about an hour later and said he was OK.
Sadly, Buhrmaster-Bunch’s cousin, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary, was shot and killed. Buhrmaster-Bunch was in meetings that morning and didn’t see that she received a text message from her mother urging her to call. “She just started breaking down and said, ‘It’s Dawn, she’s been killed,’” Buhrmaster-Bunch recalled.
The petite principal, 47, died a hero, trying to protect her students by confronting the gunman.
“She was basically 5 foot 2, but you never wanted to be on her bad side, so I can only imagine that if she saw somebody coming in, she would just sprint after them to try and take them down,” said Buhrmaster-Bunch, assistant vice president for corporate and foundation relations. “It’s still very—I don’t even know how to explain it—like she’s on vacation or it’s a dream.”
“You can’t get your head around the fact that there were all these children,” added Eastman, communications and marketing coordinator for Student Affairs in University Life and Services. “I can’t get over what they must have been feeling at that moment.”
In the wake of the tragedy, both Eastman and Buhrmaster-Bunch have been involved in separate fundraisers to help Newtown families.
Buhrmaster-Bunch is selling green rubber bracelets that read “What Would Dawn Do?” and “WWDD?” for $4 to raise money for The Dawn Hochsprung Memorial Fund.
The fund establishes a scholarship in Dawn’s honor that will benefit students of her hometown high school in Naugatuck, Conn., who are pursuing a career in education. “Dawn would continue to educate children, and the Dawn Hochsprung Memorial Fund will do just that,” the fund’s website states. To buy a bracelet or donate, visit the website or email Buhrmaster-Bunch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eastman is helping to sell “Angels of Sandy Hook” bracelets for $5. These funds will help raise money for the Newtown Memorial Fund, which will provide assistance to those affected by the Sandy Hook tragedy. It also will fund scholarships and the construction of a memorial honoring those who were killed that day. To buy one of these bracelets, visit the website or email Eastman at email@example.com.
Both praised the outpouring of support they’ve received at UB. “The people at UB have been so amazingly supportive. I will never take for granted that I work here, at such a great institution, because the people are just so wonderful,” Buhrmaster-Bunch said.
On Jan. 8, Eastman sent an email to friends and colleagues informing them that she was selling bracelets. Within minutes, responses began coming in and people started showing up at her office. Dennis Black, vice president for university life and services, for whom Eastman works, mentioned that Buhrmaster-Bunch’s cousin was the principal at Sandy Hook. Eastman then called Buhrmaster-Bunch to offer her sympathies.
The two met Wednesday for the first time in Buhrmaster-Bunch’s office on South Campus, where they were photographed for this story. They talked about how the tragedy has affected their families’ lives and the mutual respect Chip and Dawn had. “It sounds like your cousin and Chip had similar personalities,” Eastman said. “They really connected. There’s a conference they used to go to together, it just happened, and he went and said it’s just not the same without her.”
“Life is not the same without her. There is something missing from me,” Buhrmaster-Bunch said, noting how close she and Dawn were. “We used to call each other the Wonder Twins because we’re so different from our family. We’re both very outspoken and opinionated.”
Buhrmaster-Bunch recalled how many people attended Dawn’s wake, which went three hours longer than scheduled. “It’s nice to know that other people saw how awesome she was. When I was younger, I wanted to be exactly like her. I ran track because of her. I was on the swim team because of her. I got my master’s in education because of her. She said I’d be such a great teacher. She was more like a sister to me than a cousin.”