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Deeds Not Words

Bravery has twice allowed Dan Stockwell ’64 to save lives while risking death. Compassion has kept him from talking about it.

By Merry Stockwell ’65 as told to Cal Fussman

At the time, I wasn’t even sure he knew I was screaming at him. But for years afterward, he was resentful of it. He felt that I wasn’t having faith in him. I don’t fault myself in the slightest. I think it was a very human response: I didn’t know the outcome. I was in love with this guy, and it looked like I had a big chance to lose him.

It was right after we got pinned—the end of my sophomore year and Dan’s junior year. The Outing Club had an annual clambake at Popham Beach. Dan and I were sitting high on a cliff on Fox Island, looking down on the ocean in awe. There were tremendous waves crashing against the rocks. Then a girl we knew came running, screaming. Within seconds, we could see two people being swept away by the current. Steve, the closer one, had been smashed off a 15-foot rock by a wave and was floating. The other guy had tried to save Steve by tying sweatshirts into a rope and throwing them from the rocks. But as he threw, he fell in. He had all his clothes on, and his struggling carried him out farther than Steve. When I saw Dan get out of his clothes, I started screaming. I knew he was a lifeguard, but this was not a normal rescue: The waves were so high that in the water you couldn’t see over the crest, and after they crashed into the rocks, the undertow sucked everything out like a vacuum. I was swearing at Dan, screaming at him not to go.

But some of the other students had cut rope out of a volleyball net, and he tied it around his waist. I don’t remember if I saw Dan enter the water. I know that I was watching when he reached Steve, because at that very moment I saw the other guy go down for the last time.

Dan held Steve in a carry, and they were pulled up by the rope, dragged along the barnacles. Dan’s legs were all cut and bruised. The next day they were so swollen, he could barely get his pants on. I remember the dean of students coming over and shaking Dan’s hand afterward. But other than that, the College didn’t acknowledge what he’d done. The Bates Student newspaper interviewed Dan, but the story was never published. It’s a terrible blemish to admit that a student died on a college outing. Because it was a tragic event, people wanted to put it out of their minds. With the way it was kind of snuffed, the campus in denial, it almost made Dan feel guilty or part of a bad thing. So you learn that it’s not always like it is in the fairy tales. There are going to be all kinds of reactions.

That’s one of the reasons Dan rarely talks about this and about what happened later at the school and I’m reticent to talk about it now. You have to be sensitive. There’s always another side to the story. Think about it. When Dan got his first Carnegie Medal, one was posthumously awarded to the guy who’d fallen in throwing the sweatshirt. Even though the situation may have had a happy ending for us, it’s still a tragedy for another family.

Dan’s one of only four people to receive two Carnegie Medals. One of the previous winners died in the second attempt, and I think another lost a leg. Dan’s lucky to have come out whole. Yes, I’m proud of him beyond words. But it’s better not to dwell on it. When people ask me what it’s like to be married to a hero, I tell them that when I married Dan 34 years ago, I was a brunette with straight hair; now my hair is curly and white. I might as well get a laugh out of it. In reality, I try not to think about it, because every day I’d be wondering if a situation is going to arise, knowing that Dan’s likely to step forward. And not just Dan. Our daughter, Carolynn, is a water-safety instructor. Our youngest son, Michael, is a lifeguard, and our oldest, Danny, paraglides and rock climbs. Sometimes I think, Why couldn’t they all have just taken up bowling?

Of course, I’d rather have them be who they are. What would have happened if Dan had heeded my screams and done nothing—just stood on that cliff and watched both of those guys go down? He probably would’ve had nightmares for the rest of his life. And I would’ve felt horrible.

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression about Dan. You watch him mount a horse—how can I describe it? It’s like he’ll grab the mane and bounce up as the horse starts to gallop. When he skis, he doesn’t take a lesson and learn to snow-plow. He’ll head to the top of a hill in a snowstorm, go down, somersault, come up with snow in his eyebrows, and do it again. But you can’t stereotype him. The fact is, Dan was so scared in his first year of teaching at an inner-city school that he’d eat his breakfast, barf it up, then go in and work. Years later, when he first became principal at Winnisquam Regional High School, there were days when he’d come home and tell me that he wanted to hide under the coffee table.

Some people might have a hard time believing that the same guy who wanted to hide under a coffee table would voluntarily walk into a classroom where a 16-year-old boy is pointing a rifle at junior high school kids. I don’t really have an answer to that. Only a revelation that I had when Dan and I were driving to the hospital on my way to have major surgery and I thought I might have cancer. I was about in tears, and my teeth were chattering, and I said to Dan, “Look at me, I’m a wreck. I’m sorry I’m not being brave about this.” And he turned to me and said, “Oh, you’re being brave. Brave is not being scared. Being brave is being scared and doing what you have to do.”

After 34 years of marriage, I definitely have a clear understanding of who he is. I understand why he entered room 73. Yet to this day, it amazes me how a man who needs 22 pairs of glasses because he’s so absentminded that he always forgets where he put them can focus and think ahead so clearly with students being held hostage.

I learned all about it that morning, of course. But I didn’t fully comprehend what had happened until a couple of years later, when I went to the room and Dan reenacted everything. A 16-year-old had shot a rifle in the cafeteria. Two kids were injured, and then the kid with the rifle took a bunch of students hostage. I don’t want to mention the kid’s name. As I said before, there’s another side to every story. This might still be painful to him. We don’t want to hurt him; we hope he can straighten his life out. The questions people ask Dan about the incident are the questions that they ask themselves. They want to know how they’d react under those circumstances. But it’s pointless to ask. None of us could ever know.

Dan looked through the window in the door and saw some of his students crying while this kid was reloading his rifle with shells from a box on the teacher’s desk. There were so many things to think about: Posting janitors so nobody could come down the corridor. Getting everybody out of the school. How much time did he have? We’re in rural New Hampshire. He’d called the police on occasion and been unable to get anybody. Sometimes there’s only one policeman on duty. Was he better off not doing anything? Was he putting the kids in danger by walking in? He got everybody out of the school, then held his breath and turned the doorknob.

Immediately, the gun was pointed at his head. The kid was sweating and shaking. Dan said, “If you need a hostage, you have the principal now. You can let the kids go.” When the students were out the back door, Dan was so relieved. Then he began to realize, Whoops, I’m still here.

For 45 minutes, the rifle was aimed at his head. He made himself keep eye contact the whole time. I can’t stand to think about it—not only the reality that he might have died but what he was feeling when he was telling himself, I hope I don’t hear the trigger pulled. I hope I don’t see the flash.

The kid was saying that there was no reason to live. He demanded a boom box and to see a friend. When Dan went to the window to shout the kid’s demands, the kid turned with him, away from the door, where the police chief was crouching. The police chief rushed in with a gun. And then, when the kid put the barrel under his chin and threatened to commit suicide, another officer who’d crawled in seized the rifle.

There was an outpouring of appreciation from the community. I wrote my own thank-you note to the police chief. But Dan didn’t even give it a thought when the Hollywood people offered a lot of money to make a movie about it. And when the superintendent asked if the second Carnegie Medal could be presented in a public way, Dan said, “No thanks.” You have to realize, Monadnock Regional Junior–Senior High feeds off eight small towns that don’t even have a downtown. Dan goes off to Agway and gets his horse grain and turkey feed just like everybody else. We’re much more comfortable keeping a low profile. Our fear is that when someone whom everybody knows in everyday life is suddenly set up as a hero—especially in our culture, where heroes are touted as larger than life—then there’s something about human nature that wants to take that person down a peg.

But there are little things that nobody really sees or could imagine that come out of a situation like this that make you feel good. Everyone from the family came up the weekend after the incident. Our daughter, Carolynn, cried and yelled at Dan for going into that room: “Don’t you understand that you’re the only father I’ll ever have?” Much later, when she was able to think about it, she understood. She has stepchildren. She would want the principal of their school to have the same care for their safety. But there’s a difference between your emotional response and the rational response that comes later. That day, all the emotions came pouring to the surface. Dan did a wonderful job of sitting there and letting her say her piece.

Until that day, he would have told you that he resented my yelling at him at Fox Island. He didn’t understand my reaction until he heard it from our daughter. When he did, he forgave me.


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