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Foley’s Followers: Community rallies around Penacook Elementary School principal

  • Teacher Kelly Lewis has helped organize a group in Rock n’ Race for Penacook Elementary principal Chris Foley. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • With Kelly Lewis (center) holding a cut-out sign of Chris Foley, team Foley's Followers gathers before the start of this year's Rock 'N Race 5K in downtown Concord on Thursday, May 18, 2017. The team is running in honor of Penacook Elementary School Chris Foley who is battling cancer. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Team Foley's Followers gathers before the start of this year's Rock 'N Race 5K in downtown Concord on Thursday, May 18, 2017. The team is running in honor of Penacook Elementary School Chris Foley who is battling cancer. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Ethan Masterson, 7, holds up a cut-out sign of his uncle, Penacook Elementary School principal Chris Foley, as team Foley’s Followers gather before the start of this year’s Rock ‘N Race 5K in downtown Concord on Thursday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Team Foley's Followers gathers before the start of this year's Rock 'N Race 5K in downtown Concord on Thursday, May 18, 2017. The team is running in honor of Penacook Elementary School Chris Foley who is battling cancer. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Thursday, May 18, 2017

Like warriors rallying to a bugle, Foley’s Followers gathered under a banner emblazoned with their leader’s sigil.

Specifically, it was a cutout of Penacook Elementary School principal Chris Foley’s head, smiling serenely and sporting his signature bow tie, which bobbed above the chaos of the 2017 Rock ’N Race 5K. His followers were of all ages, and many were decked out in their hero’s favorite colors of green and orange.

Though Foley’s face was there, the man was not. He was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, recovering from his own fight against a sarcoma tumor – a type of cancer that develops in the body’s soft tissues – that had crept into his stomach. He came out of surgery last week, according to his Caring Bridges blog, a website where people undergoing health problems can provide updates on their progress.

Foley, 38, a father of two children with a third on the way, announced his diagnosis to his staff in March, according to Penacook Elementary teacher Kelly Lewis. The revalation, she said, shook the school.

“It was really tough. We were all crying,” she said. “We knew he hadn’t been feeling well before that. ... You could tell he was trying to be strong, but he was also really scared.”

But Foley’s Followers aren’t the type to shy from a fight. Together, about 150 participants managed to raise almost $5,000 for the Concord Hospital Payson Center for Cancer Care by race day, making the Followers the fourth-highest fundraising team in the race. Participants came from all corners of the Concord community – from Rundlett Middle School, where Foley used to teach, to Broken Ground Elementary, where his wife, Lindsey Foley, teaches, to dozens of Penacook’s students and staff.

But locals weren’t the only ones running and walking in Foley’s name. People came from as far as Rochester, where Foley was an assistant principal at Rochester Middle School and later the principal of William Allen School until 2013, when he became the Penacook Elementary principal. Their wide range of participants is a tribute to the impact Foley has on those he’s met, Lewis said.

“He’s done an excellent job his whole life of treating others the way they want to be treated,” she said. “He’s just a great leader – he’s like the Bill Belichick of principals.”

It’s an apt comparison, Lewis said, and not just because Foley likes to show his Patriots pride by wearing a ragged sweatshirt that lights up during football season; but because Foley is a stoic guy. Quiet, down-to-earth and often taciturn, he doesn’t like to be in the spotlight, she said.

“He’s the first person to say, ‘How can we help with this cause?’ but he doesn’t like to be the center of attention,” Lewis said. “I think the opportunity to show our support for him through a cause like the Payson Center is huge, because it’s good – but takes the spotlight off him.”

And like Belichick, Foley puts his students and staff in a position to succeed, according to Penacook Elementary’s acting principal Jenn Moore, who took over for Foley shortly after his diagnosis.

One instance that stands out to Moore was the creation of Beyond the Bell, a free after-school program Foley designed that offered additional learning opportunities for Penacook Elementary students.

“He lives and breathes Penacook,” she said. “He’s very supportive of his staff, makes them feel good about coming to work.”

It’s no surprise to Leslie Duford, who taught with Foley at Rundlett, that so many people came out to support him in his time of need. “When someone who’s close to your heart is sick, all the sudden cancer has a name,” she said.

And Catherine Masterson, Foley’s sister-in-law, said Foley has been “overwhelmed” by the amount of support he’s seen since his diagnosis. “He’s a tough guy,” she said. “But he’s doing as well as could be expected.”

Foley was unable to be reached for this article, but a May 2 post on his blog prior to his surgery says it all:

“I think it goes without saying that the support of your friends and family is crucial during these times,” he wrote. “...It has been a struggle but my wife Lindsey has been there for me every step of the way. Simply amazing how positive and productive she remains. Both of our families have done the same. We are forever grateful.”

“It seems like the biopsy results should come soon and we will get the family call this week,” the post continued. “There are so many possibilities that could result from that, but we will remain positive and together.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)