Prospect dog statue memorializes beloved educator slain at Sandy Hook

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BETHLEHEM CT — Erica Hocsprung, daughter of the late Dawn Hocsprung, Principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Linda Butkus, right, who was Dawn Hocsprung’s secretary when she was Principal at Bethlehem Elementary School, look over the statue of Bella the dog following an unveiling Wednesday at at the school Bella was owned by Dawn Hocsprung, who used to bring Bella into the school to encourage the students to read. Jim Shannon Republican-American

By Hanna Snyder Gambini Republican-American

PROSPECT — The long-awaited statue of “Bella the Dog” is now at home in the courtyard of Bethlehem Elementary School, where she and her late owner, former Principal Dawn Hochsprung, nurtured and inspired countless students and colleagues.

Hochsprung was principal at Bethlehem Elementary and Mitchell in Woodbury before becoming principal of Sandy Hook Elementary, where she was killed in the 2012 massacre.

In 2019, several Bethlehem residents set out to raise money for a statue to memorialize their beloved principal and her beloved Bella.

Retired teacher Bonnie Grzelak said Hochsprung is famous for serving as principal of Sandy Hook, “and rightly so, but she meant a lot to us here in Bethlehem. She was and always will be a part of us.”

Grzelak, Thomas Brayton, Carol Ann Brown and Linda Butkus thought a statue of Bella in the courtyard would be a fitting tribute to both Hochsprung and Bella.

The statue was chiseled in granite by renowned sculptor Mark Mennin of Bethlehem and his apprentice, Quinn Boothe. The duo donated most of the materials for the sculpture, Brayton said, because they knew it was a special tribute piece. The group unveiled the statue at the school Wednesday, April 27.

“It’s very important to still honor her memory for all that she did for the Bethlehem community and the students she shepherded while there,” said Brayton, whose children attended Bethlehem Elementary under Hochsprung.

Grzelak said Hochsprung was a truly innovative educator. She would bring Bella into school as a therapy dog, and the fuzzy, gentle poodle would help youngsters gain a lifelong love of reading.

When Hochsprung, a Naugatuck native and 1983 graduate of Naugatuck High School, moved to Sandy Hook, she brought that innovative spirit to students there, dressing up as “the reading fairy,” complete with a light-up tutu, Grzelak said.

“Dawn inspired kids to read and to enjoy reading,” Brayton said. “Bella stands for that love of reading that Dawn inspired.”

Grzelak said commemorating Hochsprung’s memory through a dog statue also shows how the concept of therapy dogs had come full circle in these nearby communities.

Bella was a therapy dog and reading buddy, and therapy dogs were a big part of the healing process after Sandy Hook, so a statue of Bella here seemed appropriate, Grzelak said.

Bella did not live long enough to attend the ceremony, but the statue ensures her legacy will forever in that courtyard sit, and stay.