On the occasion of what First Selectman Pat Llodra joked was her “exit interview” with The Newtown Bee, the walls and surfaces in her Newtown Municipal Center office held only a few remaining photos and mementos of her eight years of service.
But her bright smile and cheery greeting were reminiscent of her first official interview that took place as she was settling down behind the first selectman’s desk in December 2009.
Since those first few weeks of service, and on the heels of two prior years on the Legislative Council, she has officiated over dozens of ribbon-cuttings welcoming new businesses to town, and hosted tours of Scout troops and visitors from around the block and far-flung locales eager to learn about her and the important job she embraced so thoroughly and yes, lovingly.
She has officiated more than 100 Board of Selectmen meetings and attended hundreds and hundreds more with the Boards of Finance and Education, and Legislative Council, to name a few. And she has helped lead the community through some of its darkest days and most vibrant celebrations.
While discussing her official announcement of a planned “retirement” last May, Mrs Llodra — or simply “Pat” to folks from her Sandy Hook neighbors to top national and global officials — affirmed that she was looking forward to trading what amounts to a 365 days a year, 24-hour responsibility for an opportunity to enjoy much more time with her husband, Robert, and her family.
“It may sound selfish, but we’re looking at getting a place to go to escape from the worst storms of winter,” Mrs Llodra said at the time. “But we’re totally committed to spending the remainder of our days as residents of Newtown. We’ve been here over 40 years, and we have no intention of moving away.”
Anyone who has met the bright-eyed and plucky town leader knows she has seldom displayed a penchant for selfishness — indeed, quite the opposite. Mrs Llodra is known to spend days from dawn to late into the evening handling her myriad duties, often popping in on Sundays or holidays to catch up on work and correspondence “when things are quiet.”
Whether quiet Sunday mornings, bright sunny weekdays, or late stormy nights when most others are cozily tucked away in their warm homes, the calls still come. A road is yet to be plowed; there is a bear in somebody’s yard; someone complaining about a unjust speeding ticket or their ever-inflating tax bill — there have been more of those than she could ever count.
Lately, many calls have come from well-wishers saying their farewells before she takes her leave.
On November 28, a parade of town staffers and friends visited, some shedding tears during a relatively brief and intimate celebration that included refreshments and a cake decorated with the locally familiar and iconic view of the community from Castle Hill and the inscription “Happy Retirement Pat!”
Sitting for what will likely be her last official interview, Mrs Llodra said her preparation amounted to “a walk down memory lane” that included a local 1970s Republican clipping from The Newtown Bee touting her as an earnest and fresh-faced candidate for the Board of Education.
“I believe it is the general election of 1974,” she said looking at a mirror reflection of her younger self in the gritty black and gray of fading newsprint. “I was a candidate along with Maude Knapp for the Board of Education.”
‘Be A Leader’
Using terminology she has evoked numerous times in public and private, Mrs Llodra said her lead up to the interview was an opportunity for her to “kind of take a step back, or get on the balcony to look at the totality of eight years as first selectman, and the two years prior to that.”
“This is a chance to kind of consider who am I, and who have I been? Have I maintained that personal integrity that has been so important to me? What were my values, and was I true to them? I think people who know me know I start every day looking myself in the eye and saying, ‘Today you are going to bring your best self to this work.’
“No matter the pressures, no matter the stress, no matter the conflicts real or imagined, Pat Llodra cannot fall into that pattern of worry and despair,” she said. “You have to be above it all and be a leader.”
Mrs Llodra said she similarly looks back at the end of each day and each situation she faces, personal or professional, asking herself, “Have I been able to achieve that?”
She leafed through a set of questions asked by Newtown High School student Hayden Fletcher, keying in on one that asks the first selectman what she may have done differently in hindsight.
“I think every leader who begins reflecting focuses on those things — things that could have offered us another bite at that apple,” she said. “You know, the rearview mirror so often has a level of clarity that the windshield does not. All we can do is bring our best efforts and try to understand what’s in front of us. Benefit from what is behind us, but understand what is in front of us.”
Reflecting, she responded there were more than several things she wished she could have considered more carefully if time had allowed.
“Sometimes my work as the CEO was so pressure-packed, so full of problems and concerns, that I didn’t or couldn’t take the time to gather my perspective, reflect on alternatives, defer or delay action, until more thought could be applied,” Mrs Llodra said, reading from her response. “Doing things differently has to do with process, so when I think back over eight years, there is no one thing that hits me as a bad decision; it’s always reflecting on process. Did I take the time? Did I back off from the problem enough to not feel so intense about it?”
Oftentimes those challenges did not come with the luxury of time, or even time enough to process them.
“That’s the pressure leaders face,” she admitted, “you are so often not graced with the time and you have to bring your best thinking to it in the heat of the moment.”
Leading With Heart
One of the things Mrs Llodra said she is most proud of is her practice of “first leading with my heart, before my head.”
“I wanted to be sure when I was making those hard decisions that it wasn’t completely driven by that cognitive, intellectualizing of the problem. But it was always influenced by my love of this community and what’s best for us: the people I serve. And applying a solution that does the greatest good, or the least harm.”
Sometimes that was a tough call, but “That’s kind of who I am,” she said.
Looking back to that fading news clipping, Mrs Llodra recalled her early foray into local politics, when the local Republican Town Committee put her up for office along with Ms Knapp, the grandmother of current Councilman Ryan Knapp. That race would only yield a single winner, however.
“There were two candidates for the one seat, and I loved Maude. But I knew that I was also relatively new to town,” she said. Reading from her comments in the press notice, Mrs Llodra referenced a need to provide the best education possible to serve each student in their future endeavors, but at “a cost the community could afford.”
“My concern for fiscal responsibility, sound planning, better community representation, and accountability, I thought was so interesting coming from a younger me in 1974. The more things change the more they stay the same,” she added laughing.
Flashing forward to a decade ago as she served as the council’s Education Committee chairperson, Mrs Llodra recalled that her first recommendation to the full council was to fully fund the education budget that was submitted by the school board and vetted by her and her committee.
“You could have heard a pin drop at that meeting. I probably wasn’t expected to, or supposed to, make such a recommendation,” she said. “And the expectation was probably that I was going to support some reductions. It was probably an interesting epiphany to some, but as a person I could never be classically defined.
“I’m a Republican in the Lincoln mode,” she continued, “I’ve never bought the line that there is a Republican or Democratic point of view about this community. I think there is a Newtown point of view. It crosses party lines and is not tribal. What I believe in is a really vigorous competition around ideas. That’s when the best thinking emerges. Let’s blow open those doors of discourse and let’s have some real challenges to our ideas.”
Affirming Community Values
Mrs Llodra said that as the town’s CEO, every budget cycle she has taken the opportunity to include a list of community values that she perceives are to be served by that annual spending plan, with respect to the 20,000-plus taxpayers who are asked to fund that budget and rally around those values.
“This is my lens, and we have to find the right balance in the face of all the things we want to do because we can’t afford to do everything at 100 percent,” she said. “And it never speaks to everyone’s needs because it can’t. So there will always be some folks who believe they are not being listened to.”
She lamented that all too often, it is the voices of those who feel less served who explode across social network posts. Mrs Llodra has weathered a love/hate relationship with social media, which can be monumentally helpful as a communication and information tool. At the same time it can inspire divisiveness — especially with reactions to incomplete information or complete misinformation.
“Social media simply does not lend itself to promoting the depth of discussion or quality of discourse. These are opinion pages that repeat and repeat, without evidencing a true knowledge of what the issues really are, or a willingness to hear other perspectives, or to engage government in a way that informs those perspectives,” she said.
“I think future administrations will struggle even more with that. Is this a voice that should be driving our thinking, when we know in reality that it is such a relatively small number of people who engage in that environment?”
Mrs Llodra said she has been extraordinarily pleased and proud to serve alongside many exceptional team members, from municipal staffers to community volunteers to elected leaders.
“For the most part, these people come to their tasks with a commitment to do good work, not with a personal agenda or political perspective,” she said.
Advice To ‘Newbies’
As she departs, Mrs Llodra said she is looking forward to an incoming administration that has almost as many newcomers to the political scene as there are veterans.
“It’s exciting for Newtown to have so many new voices. And with those voices I believe comes new energy, new ideas, a renewed challenge to evaluate existing practices, and a chance to review to determine if this is still how we should be doing things,” she said. “Overall I think this change is good for Newtown. And I believe those who have served before will mentor these newcomers. These experienced [officials] I think will be welcoming, even if it feels less sophisticated or less informed at first.
“It’s so important for them to recall how dense the work is, and how much more challenging the learning curve than anyone expects. But we have good leaders and I think we’re going to be fine.”
Mrs Llodra said the newest slate of local officials will be served best by “being rooted in a sense of values. It can’t just be ad-hoc. It has to be part of a longer-range plan, a vision, inspirational and aspirational.”
That said, Mrs Llodra understands that many newcomers may be eager to make a mark for themselves out of the gate.
“When I think back to my time, I hope this administration never has to face the things I’ve had to face,” she said. “The week after I started, I remember receiving notice that the state was going to start withholding aid from us. And back then it was just $800,000. And there was no plan for accommodating that.
“Then we went into the new year with the largest snowfall that I think the town has ever experienced, then a flood, a tornado, and then another huge snowstorm,” she said, and for the first time in the conversation, the bright light in her eyes flickered. “Then we had the shooting at Sandy Hook School, and the outcomes from that continue.”
She admitted frequent exasperation having to govern and deal with the most mundane of demands and duties as the inconceivable whirlwind of post-incident demands and the crush of those wanting to help crashed up against the swell of those who were devastated by the litany of crises.
“We’re trying to manage the crises, which wasn’t easy because this office isn’t full of folks I could delegate to. But at the same time, [there were] demands for looking at the budget, the CIP, reducing our municipal debt and our spending, and getting some important projects off the ground and ready to go,” she said.
“At the same time, the community was quietly experiencing the greatest influx of grants — and those were above and beyond the funds we got to rebuild Sandy Hook School and to try to begin coping and responding to the aftermath of that tragedy,” she said.
Turning to another more personal period of dark days, Mrs Llodra considered how and whether the tragic loss of her own daughter, Sharon, just a few months before she took office in 2009 influenced the way she was able to respond to the most immediate survivors of 12/14.
“I think about that every once in a while,” she said, taking a deep breath and glancing momentarily toward a beam of sunlight streaming through her office window. “I think a personal loss, a hurt of that magnitude changes people. It certainly changed me, and it changed my family … losing our daughter. It opened us up to truly understanding the kind of hurt other people feel.
“Most of us sail through life believing those kinds of things are not going to happen, so we feel sorry and sympathetic, but we don’t have the empathy because we haven’t shared that experience,” she continued.
“Once you have that experience you realize how very deep that emotion is, how it really affects every single thing in your life from that moment on.”
Mrs Llodra reflected that once a person experiences the ripping away of someone so loved as a child, they cannot help but view the remainder of their life experiences “through the lens of that hurt.”
“So while I think it helped me, I’m also afraid it created some barriers for me,” she confided. “It’s so emotional and all-consuming that I couldn’t let my heart go there. There were times I had to be clinical, and be above the hurt. So while my loss helped me better understand the depth of other people’s hurt, sometimes it prevented me from being as empathetic as I wanted to be. It was too raw for me; I was hurting so much,” she said.
“I think all of us became a little different because of what happened at Sandy Hook, and I hope it humanized us in ways that are necessary and appropriate,” Mrs Llodra said. “It doesn’t mean things are any easier, it just means things are going to be different from now on.”
Fighting For Newtown
The unwanted experience of 12/14 also immediately put the first selectman into an unwanted public spotlight. While she was trying to process her own post traumatic shock, she was forced to almost solely deal with the onslaught of bureaucratic processes required to secure professional and financial assistance for the entire community.
“I don’t think most people know how much I fought for Newtown with the federal government, with the Department of Justice, to be sure we had the resources we needed to do what we had to do for all of the residents, the first responders, the teachers, the most impacted families, and all the ripple effects. We needed a tremendous amount of resources, and that was something I never thought I would be doing in my life — going to Washington and fighting for Newtown.
And she would not be denied.
“There was no saying ‘no’ to me. I was persistent and I would not accept no as an answer,” she said. “I’m proud of that and I don’t really talk about it much … being that voice of Newtown. And we continue getting those resources as we continue through this journey of recovery.”
Mrs Llodra has clear memory of standing in a hallway in Newtown High School just two days following the tragedy, awaiting the arrival of then-President Barack Obama who was heading in to try and reassure the community.
“When he came in, he came directly to me. And he was so genuine and so real, so stripped of all that artifice that people in those positions sometimes have,” she said. “He was just a dad expressing real hurt for those families he was about to meet. That touched me in a very special way. Here was a real person, and I was going to be talking with a real person about what our community was going to need going forward.”
That was the beginning of what Mrs Llodra called a “very positive relationship based on compassion, genuine understanding of the hurt and trauma of the situation.”
“Every time I had an opportunity to engage with him, I got the same impression. There was no pretense, he genuinely wanted to help. And so many extraordinary moments in private, the quiet empathy, the pat on the back and assurances that he was there for Newtown,” she said.
In closing, while virtually every person Mrs Llodra encountered in her tenure of public service made an impression, she reserved a parting comment for one peer who came to Newtown a few years after her.
“A name to cite in terms of significant influence on me, as a citizen and as a leader, is John Reed,” she said, referring to the former school superintendent, who also played key roles in the early days after the town acquired Fairfield Hills, and served as an incomparable rock in the stormy days after 12/14 when he stepped back into his role as an educational leader.
“I was on the Board of Ed that hired John to come to Newtown as superintendent,” Mrs Llodra said, easily recalling the interview with Dr Reed. “I was struck then by his passion, honesty, and sense of integrity. He talked about learning and leadership in a way that spoke to me and which became integrated into my very being as an educator and then leader.”
Mrs Llodra said while Dr Reed “was never my mentor, in practical and actual terms, I observed him closely and took away lessons about life and leading. In fact, when I became an educational leader in other districts, I often ‘channeled’ John in efforts to lead my schools to higher levels of academic success and more successful emotional/social support of students.”
As the time for the interview drew to an end, Mrs Llodra greeted the arriving First Selectman-elect Dan Rosenthal, and prepared for another in a series of transitional meetings as the days and minutes ticked away to the moment when “Pat” would pass the torch to a new community leader.