Austin brothers skip Hawaii, of­fer help in New­town

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - By Eric Dex­heimer edex­heimer@states­ Con­tact Eric Dex­heimer at 445-1774.

If Jim Pen­ning­ton of Austin hadn’t tweaked his back snow­board­ing in Colorado, he wouldn’t have been flat on his back in bed in mid-De­cem­ber.

If he hadn’t been laid up, he might not have been locked to the TV, trans­fixed by the hor­ror of the Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School shoot­ings in New­town, Conn., on the morn­ing of Dec. 14, when Adam Lanza killed 26 peo­ple, 20 of them young chil­dren, as well as his mother and him­self.

And if his fa­ther hadn’t died sud­denly of a heart at­tack a year ear­lier, less than a year af­ter re­tir­ing, the 45-year-old Pen­ning­ton might not have been ready to re­con­sider what is real and last­ing in this life.

In short, he might not have rec­og­nized the op­por­tu­nity.

“I’d re­al­ized we’ve been very blessed. It was al­ways take, take, take,” he said.

“Over the years, I’ve taken and taken and taken from the stream of life,” added his brother, Ja­son, 40, also of Austin.

So when Jim sud­denly called Ja­son and said he felt com­pelled to go to New­town over the Christ­mas hol­i­day in­stead of at­tend­ing the reg­u­lar fam­ily get-to­gether in Hawaii, Ja­son didn’t think twice. He said yes. They bought their plane tick­ets.

“To see a town in such hurt and pain — it just com­pelled us to get up here,” Jim said by phone Tues­day from New­town.

On the way, “I told my brother, ‘This town might not need our help; they might not want us,’ ” Jim re­called. “We have to be pre­pared for that.”

As they drove into the post­card New Eng­land town on Thurs­day, they saw a build­ing that said Town Hall and pulled over. It was as if peo­ple had been wait­ing for them. A woman im­me­di­ately or­dered them into an empty base­ment room to set up ban­quet ta­bles and pre­pare for a gi­ant Christ­mas present bazaar for Sandy Hook’s chil­dren.

Since the shoot­ing, the town has been blan­keted with gifts — 60,000 stuffed an­i­mals from Arkansas, presents de­liv­ered from a Cleve­land youth group, SUVs filled with toys from up­state New York. A United Way fund has filled up with $3 mil­lion. Dozens of vol­un­teers have ar­rived, pulled to the ham­let by a shared grief.

The brothers worked three days on the gift project. It was mun­dane and over­whelm­ing, heart­warm­ing and chill­ing: “A bomb-sniff­ing dog was used on all the toys that came in,” Jim re­mem­bered.

They served meals to lo­cal fire­fight­ers and first re­spon­ders. They hugged peo­ple they didn’t know.

The com­mu­nity’s re­turn em­brace sneaked up on them. Lo­cals rec­og­nized and thanked them in restau­rants and on the street.

On Sun­day, a fam­ily in­vited them to at­tend church with them. On Christ­mas Eve, an­other fam­ily in­vited them into their home for din­ner; they even had presents wait­ing for the two men from Texas.

When they re­turned to their ho­tel close to mid­night, they found a note that had been slipped un­der their door. It was an in­vi­ta­tion to a Christ­mas Day din­ner. That made four in­vites in all.

As hap­pens with the best presents, the ta­bles had turned: For the Pen­ning­ton brothers, a spon­ta­neous trip across the coun­try to soothe a griev­ing town had be­come a gift.

“Some­times we think we’re so im­por­tant, that we’re go­ing to go help some­one,” Jim said. “And God puts peo­ple in your life that end up chang­ing you.

“At this point, we don’t have a re­turn ticket.”


Jim Pen­ning­ton of Austin helps at Ed­mond Town Hall in New­town, Conn., Satur­day.

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