Sanborn Regional High School — Kingston, New Hampshire
She stood outside, looking up into the bright New Hampshire sky, and she smiled.
The whole graduating class was out there with her in the parking lot that afternoon: several dozen teenagers, dressed in their bell bottoms and denim jackets, on a patch of asphalt boxed in by rows of parked Volkswagen beetles. They were all trying to stand perfectly still, in their places. High up on the roof of the school, there was a man with a camera, capturing a bird’s-eye-view for their yearbook: the graduates, pausing just as they crossed their last milestone before official adulthood, all carefully arranged in the shape of a giant “78.”
When the yearbooks came out, Nancy found she also appeared in a few close-ups, printed in the “Class Favorites” section: a snapshot of her taking a big bite from a slice of cheese pizza, and another where she’s flipping through an old paperback. In her senior portrait, she grins warmly, her face distinguished by high smile lines, and dark-brown eyes, her hair parted in the middle and coming down in long, honey-blonde waves. She carries an aura of serenity, and confidence.
Nancy’s classmates knew her as “Beanie,” and when each student was asked for a quote for the yearbook — in the form of a tongue-in-cheek prediction of what they were “leaving” Sanborn High for — Beanie’s entry read: “Nancy Champion leaves to join the Hobbits in Rivendell.”
She liked fantasy, but her real plans were practical, and they wouldn’t take her far from home; she had already met the man she was going to marry, and one day, they were going to start a family, right there in Kingston.
* * *
Nancy Jean Champion had spent her whole life in that town. She was born on September 6th, 1960, to Donald Champion, a pilot for TWA, and Dorothy, a nurse at DJ Bakie Elementary School. When Nancy was a little girl, she attended that same school herself, just a mile up from the Champion family farmhouse on Depot Road.
The homestead had been in the family for decades. But the farmhouse on Depot Road went back much further, to the colonial days in the 1740s. Older than independence. It had even been recognized as a historical site by the town, to be preserved as “a fine example of a center-chimney vernacular Federal style farmhouse.” Nancy was raised under its gabled roof along with her older brother, Donald Jr., and sister Carol. A few years after Nancy was born, their parents brought them home a new baby brother, James.
The Champion upbringing was typical of a rural New England town in the 1960’s: they were taught to always address adults as Mr. and Mrs., and they attended services every Sunday at the town’s First Congregational Church. Donald taught the children how to safely use firearms, and — like practically everyone in Kingston — Nancy grew up shooting at varmints that strayed onto the family land. Often, she joined her father and siblings on hunting trips. “She was comfortable with raising livestock and then butchering them,” an old friend of Nancy’s explains. “That’s what they ate. It wasn’t for sport, it wasn’t fun; it was their food.”
As a little girl, Nancy loved to tend to the animals on the farm, and she was known in the family for giving the best nicknames to the dozens of sheep, chickens, cows and barn cats that lived with the Champions on their six acres. The kittens, in particular, she was protective of: once, Carol went to their mom to report that Nancy was about to “taste-test” the kittens’ food. Dorothy, a savvy mom and a school nurse, assured Nancy’s sister that she’d be fine.
Nancy joined the town’s 4-H youth club as soon as she was old enough, and never missed the annual circus and agricultural fair: it was the only event that could bring a live elephant to their little town. The Champion kids liked to sneak extra hay to feed the captive animal when its handlers weren’t looking — but Nancy took the rebellion a step further, at least in fantasy: “She would plot these extravagant plans,” her sister remembers. Year after year, Nancy would relate to her siblings her scheme to break the domesticated elephant from of the circus’s chains, and to let the gentle beast roam the New Hampshire countryside, wild and free.
* * *
Peter Lanza was older than Nancy by two years. He came from a few towns over, just across the state border with Massachusetts, and he had already graduated from Haverhill High School with the Class of ‘76. Peter had thin features, wore large spectacles, and carried a reputation as a shy young man who was blessed academically, especially in math and the sciences. This was enough to earn him the nickname “Mousey” around the halls, but he nonetheless fit in at Haverhill High; one of his classmates remembers, “He was just one of us, a regular kid.”
Nancy saw more in Peter. She saw potential. They dated for another two years after her graduation, and then on June 6th, 1981, the high school sweethearts were married. Nancy sewed her own wedding dress, and the reception was held at the old Champion home on Depot Road, where the newlywed Lanza couple were delivered by horse-drawn carriage. A scene straight from a postcard.
The Lanzas got their first apartment together in Peter’s hometown of Haverhill. He was accepted into the University of Massachusetts Lowell as an undergraduate, majoring in accounting, while Nancy attended the University of New Hampshire for a time — but the pragmatic couple knew that they couldn’t afford both, and it soon came time to make a choice.
The Lanzas ultimately decided to place their long-term bets on Peter’s career, while Nancy paid the bills in the meantime. She dropped out of college without completing a degree, never to return; of the few regrets she would carry with her throughout her life, this would be one of Nancy’s biggest.
* * *
Nancy started her own business in 1982, in Exeter; town records show her signature on leases for commercial washing machines, billed to “Front Street Laundry.” Family would remember her as a hard worker during these years, one who also took shifts as a hostess at a fine restaurant back in Kingston to make ends meet.
* * *
Sometime in the mid-1980s, Nancy sold the laundromat, and got an office job with John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, in Boston. She had an edge in the hiring process: her father-in-law, Peter S. Lanza, was already a legendary salesman and investment broker with the company, having won many prestigious achievement awards over his several decades in the office. His word carried weight.
Starting her new job, Nancy had a 50-mile commute to-and-from Boston’s financial district, where the company’s 60-story glass-and-steel headquarters loomed, the tallest skyscraper in New England. She would soon find that she actually enjoyed the long, solitary drives back and forth from Kingston. It gave her time to herself.
A vivacious and fit blonde in her 20’s, Nancy attracted no shortage of attention from men during her trips to the big city. Sometimes, they couldn’t take a hint. She told her friends about a period when she had to be escorted to her car by security at the end of every work day, after a New England Telephone executive (the company rented office space in the same building) began “stalking” her. She had only exchanged small talk with the middle-aged man while sharing an elevator a few times, and was taken aback at the level of obsession that grew from those few, innocent social pleasantries. “What was I wearing?” she asked herself years later, when writing an email. “VERY conservative business suit…I worked in a financial department of a mutual fund company. As far as I am concerned, some men are just egocentric idiot pigs, and those kind need no encouragement.”
Law enforcement officials in Kingston recall Nancy telling them of an even more serious incident: one that unfolded in the shadow of Hancock tower, on the Boston Common. Details are hazy, but apparently Nancy had been “assaulted,” in a manner described only as “a daytime attack in front of onlookers.” The Kingston Police Department were made aware of it when Nancy came to tell them that she was afraid that the attacker would come for her where she lived. Apparently, no charges arose from the incident, and it is unclear if she ever identified her assailant.
By this time, Nancy’s little brother, Jimmy, had grown up and joined the United States Army. He taught his big sister some self-defense moves, and though Nancy never had occasion to use them, from then on, she remained confident that she could actually take a man’s life if she needed to; Jim Champion had joined an elite special forces unit while in the Army, the Green Berets. Their exploits were the stuff of battlefield legend, having acted with deadly precision in conflicts from Vietnam to Panama. “I don’t know if there is a name for the kind of training the Green Berets get,” Nancy would explain, “they are simply trained to kill.”
* * *
In June of 1986, Nancy’s father Donald passed away. His widow, Dorothy, stayed on at the farm, now its sole owner.
Then, one day in 1987, Nancy found out she was going to be a mother. And she knew that there was still only one place where she would want to start a family: the old homestead, on Depot Road.
Nancy’s mother sectioned off the westernmost 2.5 acres of the Depot Road lot, dividing the heirloom territory in two. Dorothy granted that portion to the Lanzas, and the soon-to-be parents quickly began construction on what would be their family home: a 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath Cape Cod-style house, with a steeply-slanted roof, and an expansive front deck that wrapped around to face the now-reduced Champion homestead to the east, and the rolling hills of New Hampshire wilderness to the north. The house would be finished early in 1988, in time for the arrival, that April, of the Lanza family’s first-born son.