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Foley’s farewell: Beloved Penacook principal reflects on a life well lived

  • Chris Foley, 39, holds his 2-week-old son, William Christopher Foley, at Concord Regional VNA's hospice house on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Foley left his position as principal of Penacook Elementary School in March after being diagnosed with cancer and entered hospice care in late August. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Custodian Elmer Boutwell (left) takes a photo of first-grade teachers Jacki Egounis, Tammi Lemay and Laura Messenger in front of a banner that reads “Foley’s Followers” at Penacook Elementary School on Thursday.

  • Chris Foley (top), 39, spends time with his family at Concord Regional VNA's hospice house on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Foley left his position as principal of Penacook Elementary School in March after being diagnosed with cancer and entered hospice care in late August. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Lindsey Foley holds her 2-week-old son William and daughter Ellie, 5, as they spend time with husband Chris Foley, 39, at Concord Regional VNA's hospice house on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Foley left his position as principal of Penacook Elementary School in March after being diagnosed with cancer and entered hospice care in late August. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Lindsey Foley holds her 2-week-old son, William, and daughter, Ellie, 5, as they spend time with husband Chris Foley, 39, at Concord Regional VNA’s hospice house on Thursday. Foley left his position as principal of Penacook Elementary School in March after being diagnosed with cancer and entered hospice care in late August. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Chris Foley (top), 39, spends time with his family at Concord Regional VNA's hospice house on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Foley left his position as principal of Penacook Elementary School in March after being diagnosed with cancer and entered hospice care in late August. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Chris Foley, 39, spends time with his family at Concord Regional VNA's hospice house on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Foley left his position as principal of Penacook Elementary School in March after being diagnosed with cancer and entered hospice care in late August. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Chris Foley, 39, spends time with his family at Concord Regional VNA's hospice house on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Foley left his position as principal of Penacook Elementary School in March after being diagnosed with cancer and entered hospice care in late August. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Photos hang on the wall in Chris Foley's office at Penacook Elementary School on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Foley left his position as principal of the school in March after being diagnosed with cancer and entered hospice care in late August. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Penacook Elementary School teacher Deb Corey talks about Chris Foley from the teacher's lounge at the school on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Foley left his position as principal of the school in March after being diagnosed with cancer and entered hospice care in late August. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Bowtie stickers are seen on the door to Chris Foley's office at Penacook Elementary School on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Foley left his position as principal of the school in March after being diagnosed with cancer and entered hospice care in late August. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Chris Foley poses with his wife, Lindsey Foley, along with his three children (from left), William, Ellie and Camden, after the birth of William on Aug. 21. —Courtesy

  • Chris (left) and Lindsey Foley during a Penacook Elementary School event last year. —Courtesy



Monitor staff
Thursday, September 07, 2017

If anyone deserves to feel cheated, it’s Chris Foley.

He could feel cheated that doctors found an aggressive sarcoma tumor in his stomach this March, rendering him unable to finish his fourth year as principal at Penacook Elementary School.

He could feel cheated the cancer snaked its way into his lungs, ribs and skull months after he’d had a surgery to remove the tumor and started chemotherapy – a discovery his family learned just one week after his third child, William Christopher Foley, was born on Aug. 21.

He could feel cheated that just weeks after his 39th birthday his doctors told him additional treatments would be no longer effective and he would have to spend the rest of his days at Concord Regional VNA’s hospice house.

Sometimes, Foley will admit, he does feel a little cheated, especially when it comes to his family.

“There’s a part of me,” he said from his hospice bed Wednesday night, grief creeping in, “that feels like I’m going to miss things so much. There’s a part of it that ... it’s hard not to think that part of it’s been taken away a little early.”

He’ll miss his oldest daughter Ellie’s first day of school, when she starts kindergarten at Penacook Elementary next year. He’ll miss William’s first steps and his son Camden’s first game of tee ball.

But even facing down the end of his life, Foley refuses to give in to that grief.

Instead, he’ll tell you he’s grateful for the relationships he’s built with students and faculty over the years, first as a teacher at Rundlett Middle School – where he met his wife, Lindsey Foley – then as an assistant principal at William Allen School in Rochester, and finally as a principal at Penacook Elementary. He will tell you he was humbled by the amount of support he’s seen from the Concord educational and medical community.

Foley will tell you he’s grateful for his family, who he said have been instrumental in getting through the last few months. He’s so proud of Lindsey, now a teacher at Broken Ground Elementary School, and the life they have built for their children.

“I feel lucky, honestly,” he said. “I feel like Lindsey and I have built such a strong foundation to succeed, to have our kids have a successful life. I feel overwhelmed with support and care and kindness. ... I’m a fortunate person to have what I’ve had, you know?”

Family ties

Foley’s family follows him on his journey.

The lights inside his room at the hospice house are warm, and Jim Foley, his father, often entertains Foley and his sister Meghan Foley’s children. Pictures of Foley – with his family, at school wearing his signature bow ties, his wedding photo with Lindsey – are propped up everywhere.

His family follows Foley outside when the weather is nice. Wherever they go, the scene and the feeling is warm, comforting.

Camden, a boisterous 2-year-old with bouncing blond curls, darts to and from his mother, sitting at Foley’s side. Ellie, a quiet 5-year-old, curls up next to her grandfather, watching a video on his phone. When they grin, they do so with their father’s eyes.

William, the newborn, sleeps in Lindsey Foley’s lap, soothed by her low murmurs and occasional back pats. It’s too early to say, his parents think, whom he’ll look like more.

“Probably another mini-Chris,” Lindsey Foley said.

Meghan Foley stays with her children Amelia and Myles. She’s Foley’s younger sister by three years, but jokes that she is the wiser of the two. They have the same eyes, the same tired smile.

The location is bittersweet for the Foley family; they lost their matriarch, Deborah Foley, after a long battle with anorexia 18 years ago. She spent some of her final days at the hospice house, and Chris said the level of care she received there made him feel comfortable with staying there, too.

The whole family is close, and teaching is in the family’s blood: Chris and Meghan’s mother, Deborah Foley, was a career educator in Concord, and their father recently retired after 40 years of directing band, most recently at Concord High School. They grew up in East Concord, just miles from where Lindsey now teaches.

Lindsey also comes from teaching stock. Her mother, Beth Inman, recently retired from education after teaching fourth grade at Boscawen Elementary School for several years. Her sister, Catherine Masterson, is the principal at Loudon Elementary School.

But it’s Meghan and Lindsey who will soon share a unique bond. Two weeks to the day before Chris Foley was diagnosed, Meghan lost her spouse, Andrea Cicirelli, to a 10-year battle with breast cancer.

The similarity to their stories is eerie. Meghan met her wife while teaching at North West Elementary, and their children are close in age. Andrea’s death, which occurred after the cancer spread into her arm, her liver and her brain, was just three days after she turned 40.

“Knowing what we had just been through, the effects of cancer ... it was devastating,” Meghan Foley said of Chris Foley’s diagnosis. “For us it wasn’t as drastic, it was more drawn out. Not like Chris’s, which just took him out.”

When Chris Foley talks about his deceased sister-in-law, his voice breaks.

“Obviously, it was very sad,” he said. “But if you look at the positive, it’s been inspirational. You see someone fight a battle that’s unbelievable, and to have seen what those kids went through and what Meghan did, you can’t help but be inspired.”

“I want to follow a lot of what her and Meghan did,” he continued. “Her strength, it’s making us not scared. I mean, we’re scared, but you can also feel a sense of that we’re going to be together soon, and our family’s all in it together. It’s helped us build strength.”

The Foley family has always stayed together. It’s something that’s never far from Chris’s mind nowadays. He misses the things they used to do together: swimming at their grandparents’ pool, taking trips to Maine and Church’s Landing in Meredith, hanging out in Concord’s downtown.

But without that togetherness, they wouldn’t have made it this far, the family acknowledges. When Foley was taken to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, it was Lindsey’s parents who took care of the kids while his wife drove down at 4 a.m. each day to be with Chris.

“Chris has been courageous throughout this whole thing,” Jim Foley said. “The whole family just rallied around him.”

Lindsey Foley, too, has borne the ordeal with grace, said her older sister. Speaking from her office at Loudon Elementary School, Catherine Masterson called her sister “an old-school New Englander.”

“She’s a lot like her maternal grandmother,” Masterson said. “Tough as nails.”

Masterson can attest to the tightness of the Foley bond; ever since Chris Foley was diagnosed, she said he’s been working with her children to understand what’s going on.

The news is especially tough, Masterson said, for her 10-year-old son, who shares Foley’s love of sports. But that’s been handled with grace, too.

“Chris has helped him understand what’s happening and how he can help Ellie and Cam in the coming days, weeks, months,” she said. “He’s good at knowing what each one of us needs.”

That’s no surprise to Masterson, though. She knew from the moment she met Foley years ago that he was a good fit for her sister.

“She introduced him to my family at a restaurant in Tilton, and she had never brought anyone home before,” she said. “He shared Lindsey’s passion for sports, and is a serious, amazing teacher, completely dedicated to his students.”

When she talks about her sister and Foley’s relationship, her voice softens. “She loves Chris; she would do anything for him.”

Foley’s Followers

Less than 20 miles away from the hospice house, Chris’s work family continues to rally around him, too.

On Thursday, the Penacook Elementary School teacher’s lounge was filled with the smell of barbecue from Smokeshow Barbeque in Concord, and the blue and white of New England Patriots jerseys worn by teachers. Both have become commonplace at Penacook Elementary since Foley was hired five years ago; for every Patriots opener, he’s had food catered for his staff as a way to say “thank you” for their hard work. This year was no exception.

It’s undeniable that Foley’s absence is felt in the school. The “Four Corners,” an intersection of hallways where all students pass through to get to class, used to be where Foley hung out during the morning rush, squeezed into what acting principal Jenn Moore called a “ridiculously small” student’s desk that barely contained Foley’s frame.

He’s missing in the classrooms, too, said longtime teacher Deb Corey. “No one pops into the classrooms anymore,” she said. “That’s what I miss the most, his physical presence.”

Foley, Corey said, is a hands-on kind of guy. He’s the kind of person who refuses to let others handle the hard parts of his job. That’s why he had everyone come together as a staff last week for a Skype meeting, to tell them he wasn’t coming back.

The news blew Corey away. “I was sad when we heard of his initial diagnosis, but still very hopeful, you know?” she said. “I don’t think I’ve totally accepted it.”

Part of that physical presence was Foley’s bow ties, which started as a special Tuesday event, then became a holiday occasion, then turned into an almost every-other-day occurrence, according to his wife.

Elmer Boutwell, the school’s longtime custodian, is also a bow tie enthusiast, thanks to Foley. He said Foley gave him his first bow tie years ago, when Bow Tie Tuesdays became a thing, because Boutwell didn’t own any at the time.

“He said to me, ‘Don’t you worry, I’ll fix you up,’ ” Boutwell said. “The next Tuesday, he had one for me.”

Foley’s given Boutwell three bow ties since then. He said he wears his every Tuesday, and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.

It’s the above-and-beyond things, like buying a bow tie, that endear Foley to his school. But Foley insists it’s the people, not him, that make the school great.

“There’s a close sense of community at Penacook ... where the staff has a really special way of dealing with kids, and that attitude’s contagious,” he said. “People can tell everyone’s in it for the same reason, which is the kids.”

Foley’s 15 years in education has inspired a following. That following – former and current students, colleagues, family and friends – rallied under a cardboard cutout of his face in May, when Foley’s Followers raised $5,500 for the Concord Hospital Payson Center for Cancer Care during the 2017 Rock ’N Race 5K.

The effort was touching, but not surprising to Foley.

“I told them nothing would make me happier than for them to do that for me,” he said. “They really banded together, which is what they’re good at.”

As news of Foley’s condition spreads, those followers are again coming out in force.

There’s the YouCaring fundraiser, which has pushed far past its $15,000 goal to $19,000 and climbing since it was started late last week.

There’s a vigil, planned to take place at 7 p.m. Friday at the hospice house, where Moore said hundreds of people are expected to show their love for Foley.

And then there’s an effort by Robin Heins, a business administrator at Penacook Elementary. She’s hoping to arrange a phone call with Patriots Coach Bill Belichick for Foley as a way to thank him for all the work he’s done.

Foley would love that; Belichick is his idol, and he said his coaching style inspires how he leads his community.

“He’s himself, you know?” he said. “He gets the job done. But he’s got a softer side, when he needs it.”

Taking the positive

So what option does Foley have, now that treatments are exhausted?

He could easily wallow in despair and watch the sun go down from his hospice bed. But Foley’s not that kind of guy.

Instead, he will readily encourage everyone to think about the positives in every bad situation, even his own. He’ll say to remember the conversations, the relationships, everything that makes life painful and worth living. He’ll express his gratitude for the support everyone has shown them through these tough months.

“Things are going to happen that are really unfair,” he said. “You’ve just got take the positive from it first and move on.”

He explains all of this with a half smile on his face that everyone knows so well while looking at his newborn son, asleep on Lindsey Foley’s lap.

“I’m here, but I got a 2-week-old right here, you know what I mean?” he said, nodding his head toward his son. “When people come to visit me, they’re not asking how my stomach feels today, they’re asking me how he’s doing.”

“I feel like we just have to recognize what we have here,” he said. “We have to think about what’s going well.”

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