Newtown teacher and Thomaston basketball coach helping kids heal

Gary Franklin was meant to teach at Newtown High School.

That isn’t a religious statement. It’s a statement of fact. Had he not taken the job a day before the school year in September 2012, it would still ring true.

Sometimes in life, things work out in a way that doesn’t seem random. While there’s no reason that 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school, there may be a reason why Gary Franklin took the job 24 hours before the school year started. There may be a reason why he passed up offers from other schools to come to Newtown.

They needed him.

I first met Franklin at Thomaston Center School a couple of years ago. We coached middle school basketball together. I’ve never met anyone who cares more, who has more conviction, and whom I’d trust more to lead a town out of such an unimaginable abyss. That’s because, like most of the people who become coaches, teachers, and civic leaders, Franklin truly cares about the kids he’s entrusted with.

He was raised “on the streets” of Torrington, as he often says. He was a basketball star in high school, and besides teaching, that is his biggest passion in life. Franklin led Torrington Christian Academy, which has just over 30 high school students, to back-to-back national Christian school championships in 1998-99. It was a remarkable accomplishment for the tiny school in Torrington, one that no one in that area will ever forget.


After college, Franklin went into teaching, social work, and eventually, coaching. He began teaching history at Thomaston High School in 2008, and his kids immediately took a shine to him. He was young, relatable, and real. He told it like it was, and rarely minced words. When I coached middle school basketball with him in 2011, I saw him command respect from the kids. They loved him.

Sure, he got on them at times, like any coach, but at the end of the day there was no doubt that he had their best interests in mind. He just wanted to see them succeed. We had a decent team, but Franklin wasn’t going to accept mediocrity. I can still hear him telling the kids in practice before our first game.“Undefeated season,” he’d bellow. “That is our goal.” We hadn’t had those kinds of expectations at Thomaston in years. He became the head coach at Thomaston High School the next year, and in 2013, he led the Golden Bears to their first winning season since 1995.

When the Thomaston school board decided to undergo budget cuts in 2012, Franklin decided it was time for him to look for a new teaching job (he still coaches at THS). Teachers were being cut, and Franklin, who has an elementary school-aged daughter, couldn’t afford to lose his job. He had offers from several schools across Connecticut, but none of them felt right. That is, until a history teaching position at Newtown High School came up.

“My wife and I drove through there and it was beautiful. The people were wonderful. It was like perfect small-town America. I thought man, this is a place I could move,” he said.

The job seemed to come out of nowhere, and it opened up right before the school year began. Franklin was interviewed on a Tuesday, and offered the job on Wednesday. He was hired 24 hours before the first day of school. “The circumstances surrounding me taking that job were so strange,” he said.

Just four months later, he’d be thrown into a position that no one in the history of the world could have possibly prepared for.

On December 14, 2012, Franklin took some of his kids on a field trip to Education Connection in Litchfield to work on a history documentary. They were in the middle of a presentation when some of the students began receiving text messages saying that the school was in a lockdown. “I originally thought it was a drill,” Franklin said. “But then they were saying that the lockdown had been going on for 40 minutes.”

“So I went on the computer and I saw the first news reports coming out, and that’s when we started to realize that something serious was going on.”

Franklin immediately rounded up his kids and began calling their parents, asking them if he could drop them off at their homes. He then quickly shuffled them back to Newtown, dealing with unfathomable emotion on the way home.

“There’s not a lot of people on this planet who are going to have to deal with something like that,” he said.

“I think about what happened, and it still hasn’t even registered to me. [Sandy Hook Elementary] is just a mile from the high school. How can you—I mean, if you really think about it, everything else doesn’t have a lot of significance to it.”

He thinks about his own daughter, who goes to  school in Torrington. His family hadn’t planned to move to Newtown, but what if they had?

In the days and weeks that followed, Franklin would have to stand in front of the classroom and face a group of students whose lives had been changed forever.  He would have to try and somehow find the words to comfort them, heal them, and help them move on. It has got to be the toughest job in the world. But Franklin approached it with a thoughtful straightforwardness, in the same way that he told his middle school team that they were going to go undefeated.

“We’ll never get over it. None of us will ever get over it,” he said. ” But at the same time, you have to think about what is best for the kids. Are we going to sit in every class, 53 minutes a piece, just looking at each other? ‘Hey, what do you want to do? I don’t know…what do you want to do?’”

“We’re not going to forget what happened. The whole world is going to remember what happened. But the whole world is also looking at us to see how we respond to something that was so catastrophic and so terrible. And I think that how we’re handling it as a district and as a faculty and as a group of students is going to be a great example for the rest of the world.”

There are many people in Newtown like Gary Franklin. People who have helped and will continue to help the devastated survivors of the tragedy somehow find the strength to stumble to their feet and carry on. Still, his story deserves telling.

Because if the world is indeed looking at Newtown for an example, his is a pretty good one to follow.

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