Fred Guttenberg, father of Jesse and Jaime, spoke about his recently published book, Find the Helpers, on March 16 as part of the Levy Lecture Series. Both of Fred’s children were students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) in Parkland, Fla., on February 14, 2018.
That was the day a disgruntled former student with a documented history of antisocial and threatening behavior entered MSD and used an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle to hunt students, teachers, and staff. Fourteen students and three adults were murdered, including his daughter, Jaime Guttenberg. She was 14-years old.
Four months earlier, in October 2017, Mr. Guttenberg’s younger brother, Michael, an emergency medicine physician and first responder at 9/11 in New York City, died after a nearly five year struggle with pancreatic cancer, contracted as a result of his service. The extended Guttenberg family is close — five siblings in all, with only 13 months between Fred and Michael — and Michael’s illness and death hit Fred hard. But it was nothing compared to what he felt after his daughter was killed.
Rage. Pain. Guilt. Love.
Rage at the seemingly unbreakable hold the gun lobby (National Rifle Association or NRA) has on politicians. Pain at the indescribable loss of his daughter, and the unending grief he, his wife, Jen, and son grapple with daily. Guilt for thinking that if only he had spoken out and gotten involved earlier, maybe this tragedy could have been prevented. Love because he is first and foremost a devoted husband and father, and he is reacting to this experience because of what happened to his kid. He is a dad who lost his daughter, and he doesn’t want this to happen to anyone else.
Mr. Guttenberg was candid, heartfelt, and focused in his conversation with the Levy audience. He said that as he started to write what would become Find the Helpers, the purpose and message of his book changed. It would still be about Michael and Jaime, and how he and his family are coping, but the bigger message is how he and they have survived because of the family members, friends, and strangers who have supported them emotionally through the darkest of days. He read directly from Chapter 15 saying,
“My story would not have been possible without all of the helpers who were part of my life before Jaime was murdered and those who became a part of my life after. What I have learned is that it is the helpers who carried me. It is the helpers who helped me move forward. It is the helpers who gave me inspiration and who lifted me when I was weak. It is the helpers who encouraged me through the negativity that accompanied my mission. We all suffer amazing highs and lows in life. My ultimate advice to anyone is that whatever you are going through, always seek out your helpers. They are there, and they will carry you when you need it.”
Amazingly, Mr. Guttenberg’s message is one of hope and optimism. He and his wife formed a foundation, Orange Ribbons for Jaime, that raises money to provide scholarships for promising dance students and future health-care providers.
During the past three years he has relentlessly buttonholed politicians from both parties, in all parts of the country, advocating for stronger gun safety. He is a vocal and active presence on Twitter – unfiltered, direct, and unafraid. He gives interviews on television and speeches in front of large groups, always consistently advocating for gun safety.
He advocates for Jaime’s Law, formally known as the Ammunition Background Check, a bill sponsored by Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), that will mandate background checks on all ammunition sales. Ammunition background checks are the objective for practical reasons. There are approximately 400 million guns on the street today, many of them unregistered or illegal. It is impossible to remove them from the hands of those determined to use them for nefarious purposes. Without ammunition, the gun is neither deadly nor harmful.
Mr. Guttenberg recounted his experiences speaking with, and later meeting, then former Vice President Biden as he offered solace and compassion, as well as advice, counseling “Everybody goes through grief differently.” The audience heard about how Mr. Guttenberg, a guest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), was arrested and handcuffed for uttering nine words of protest during President Trump’s 2020 State of the Union speech. His warmth toward and respect for both leaders was a highlight for many listeners.
At Jaime’s funeral, the rabbi advised the thousands of mourners present, each struggling to come to terms with unfathomable loss, saying “We don’t move on. We move forward.” This is Mr. Guttenberg’s mantra, one he thinks about constantly. As he has moved forward, he has gained great perspective, possibly even wisdom. He recognizes that everyone will have moments when they will be tested beyond anything possibly imagined. Mr. Guttenberg believes, “Ultimately, what matters more than the moment is how you respond to it. How you react to your moment when it comes is what will define you.”
An encore of Mr. Guttenberg’s conversation is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel. Levy Lectures are free, but registration is required.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.