WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama honored the six women who were murdered two months ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School by presenting the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal to their families at an elegant White House ceremony Friday that mixed pride and sadness for the educators and jubilation for the 12 other winners.
Obama said the Presidential Citizens Medal was being awarded to Rachel D'Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach and Victoria Soto "for dedicating themselves to their students and to the community of Newtown, Connecticut."
"When they showed up for work at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14 of last year, they expected a day like any other -- doing what was right for their kids, spending a chilly morning readying classrooms and welcoming young students -- they had no idea that evil was about to strike.
"And when it did, they could have taken shelter by themselves. They could have focused on their own safety, on their own well being. But they didn't. They gave their lives to protect the precious children in their care. They gave all they had for the most innocent and helpless among us.
"Some had been at Sandy Hook Elementary School for only weeks; others were preparing to retire after decades of service. All worked long past the school bell to give the children in their care a future worth their talents.
"On Dec. 14, 2012, unthinkable tragedy swept through Newtown, etching the names of these six courageous women into the heart of our nation forever."
As a military aide called the individual names of the Sandy Hook honorees and read the citation explaining the honor for each, family members walked to the podium in the White House East Room, one family at a time.
There, beneath famed portraits of George Washington and Martha Washington, the president greeted them with handshakes and hugs and presented the medals, whispered a few words to them and posed for a photo.
The family members were:
Lauren Rousseau's parents, Teresa and Gilles Rousseau.
Victoria Soto's parents, Donna and Carlos Soto.
As he ended the ceremony and congratulated the winners, Obama said: "A special note just to the families who are here from Sandy Hook. We are so blessed to be with you. I've gotten to know many of you during the course of some very difficult weeks.
"And your courage and love for each other and your communities shines through every single day. And we could not be more blessed and grateful for your loved ones who gave everything they had on behalf of our kids.
The 2012 President Citizens Medal was bestowed on people who "performed exemplary deeds of service for their community." The 18 winners honored Friday included famed pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton of Boston and Harris Wofford, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who was also a civil rights leader and early leader of the Peace Corps and the Corporation for National and Community Service.
The Citizens Medal is the second-highest civilian honor awarded by the White House, behind the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On Friday, she said, the group had breakfast in the White House, then toured the executive mansion before meeting with Obama prior to the medals ceremony.
"He told us this was one of his favorite things to do because it honors ordinary people doing amazing things," Rousseau said.
As he has throughout his meetings with those connected with the Sandy Hook shooting, Obama became emotional during the ceremony.
"My son, Matthew, said he saw a tear roll down his cheek," Rousseau said. "It was very touching."
Rousseau said that after the ceremony, all the honorees had lunch in a room overlooking the White House Rose garden.
Later, Bill Sherlach said he would have preferred staying in "total obscurity" under the circumstances. He said he is taking life "one day at a time" and has established the Fairfield County Family Foundation in honor of his slain wife. The foundation will focus on mental health issues, he said.
Michael Murphy said the medal belonged to his late wife as he proudly showed it to his two daughters and others.
The audience included Connecticut's two senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and Reps. Elizabeth Esty, D-5, Rosa DeLauro, D-3, Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra and School Superintendent Janet Robinson.
Also in the audience were four Newtown teachers and school employees.
Two of them, teacher Kristine Feda and custodian Rick Thorne, were in the school the morning of the massacre and their frantic efforts to warn others and to shepherd students to safety may have saved many other lives.
Also at the ceremony were Tom Kuroski, Newtown High School teacher and president of the Newtown Federation of Teachers, and Joanne Didonato. She was Hochsprung's secretary and was out of the building the day of the shooting.