STRATFORD, Conn. — She has come to be known for her instinctive heroism in saving the lives of many of her young students, but at her funeral on Wednesday, Victoria Soto, a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, was remembered in a way that only those closest to her would have known.
"Her last act was selfless,” the Rev. Meg Boxwell Williams said of Ms. Soto.
She was a sister, a cousin and a friend, someone who had a passion for teaching but also a beguiling “goofball” side that delighted her friends and relatives.
The funeral service, the first of six for the school employees who died in the massacre that also took the lives of 20 children on Friday, was held in a classic steepled white New England church in the Lordship neighborhood of Stratford on the Long Island Sound, where Ms. Soto had lived all of her 27 years. Services were also held for Charlotte Bacon, 6; Daniel Barden, 7; and Caroline Previdi, 6. Wakes were held for Chase Kowalski, 7, and the school principal, Dawn Hochsprung, 47; their funerals were to be private.
So many people came to mourn Ms. Soto — perhaps 400 — at Lordship Community Church that half of the crowd endured the cold on chairs set up on a lawn outside the church, listening to the service on loudspeakers under a brilliant sun.
Her coffin, draped in white flowers, was carried into the church to the sorrowful sounds of three bagpipers as an honor guard of more than a dozen Connecticut police officers flanked the hearse and the other cars in the funeral caravan.
In her eulogy, the Rev. Meg Boxwell Williams praised Ms. Soto as a “quick-thinking, beautiful, selfless person” who huddled her first-grade pupils into a closet and cupboards and hurried others to escape as a determined gunman invaded the school.
“Her last act was selfless, Christlike in laying down her life for her children,” Ms. Williams said in closing remarks.
After the eulogy, a song was offered by a familiar voice: Paul Simon, who performed “The Sound of Silence,” the haunting words capturing the nightmarish nature of how Ms. Soto died and the emptiness her death left behind. A representative for Mr. Simon said, “The Sotos and Simons met through Vicki’s mother and Paul’s sister-in-law, both nurses.”
Relatives and friends, some choking or weeping openly as they spoke, recalled her as a daughter, a sister to three siblings, a cousin and a friend. Ms. Soto was remembered as a young woman with long brown hair, captivating blue eyes and “an infectious laugh,” one who had a passion for gathering her extended family together whenever she could and making relatives laugh with sometimes zany impulsive gestures.
They recalled how Ms. Soto, on a whim, insisted that all of her cousins and siblings buy cheap sunglasses before a trip to a Six Flags amusement park, how she woke her lovesick college roommate with “Kiss the Girl” from the Disney film “The Little Mermaid.” Ms. Soto loved the Yankees’ No. 11, Brett Gardner; collected flamingos in all shapes and sizes; and seemed to live for Christmas and the chance to ornament a tree that she insisted on choosing, and to be surrounded by her family.
“You were the funniest, goofiest person I know,” Heather Cronk, a cousin, said.
Ms. Soto’s roommate at Eastern Connecticut State University, Rachel Schiavone, said Ms. Soto was “always up for anything.”
“When she hugged you,” she said, “she put her whole heart and soul into every hug she gave.”
Ms. Soto’s aunt, Debbie Cronk, a teacher who was her professional inspiration, remembered how exuberant Ms. Soto was when she called five years ago to say she had secured a job at Sandy Hook Elementary. But Ms. Cronk also remembered her mischievous side, how as a little girl Ms. Soto loved feeding the ducks near her grandmother’s house, though not as much as eating the bread herself.
Ms. Schiavone, her best friend, recalled Ms. Soto’s devotion to the profession — spending every evening working on lesson plans and designing poster boards — and the extra mile she went for her students.
“It does not surprise me at all that Vicki died protecting her kids,” Ms. Schiavone said.
Gary MacNamara, the chief of the Fairfield Police Department, who rushed to the Sandy Hook school shortly after the shooting, said Ms. Soto had “pushed children into a closet and allowed other kids to escape” before she herself was killed by Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old armed with a semiautomatic rifle and other guns.
“All of law enforcers are asked what will we do if given that moment when a life-threatening decision has to be made,” Chief MacNamara said in an interview. “She answered that question: through her strength, she took action to save the life of the students. I know, because I’ve spoken to children in that class who are alive because of what she did.”
The service began with the singing of “Amazing Grace,” and then Ms. Williams reminded mourners that it was “God who consoles us in our affliction” and that death did not “separate us from the love of God.” Yet, Ms. Soto’s death was “a shock that goes beyond our comprehension.”
“We had no warning, no time to tie up loose ends, to clean up misunderstandings, to say I love you one last time.”
She talked about the muddle of emotions that someone might feel, even “flashes of anger at Vicki — why did you have to be so good” and sacrifice herself for so many children.
Yet, the minister concluded, those were the selfless instincts that made Ms. Soto the teacher she was.