Concord High School Principal Gene Connolly was honored on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday afternoon.
U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, a 1974 Concord High School graduate, asked Speaker Paul Ryan for the floor and used her time to speak about Connolly, reflecting on the principal’s character, contributions to the school and upcoming retirement.
“Over the past 14 years, Principal Connolly has served at the helm of Concord High School, helping lead this school to multiple state championships and new academic heights,” Kuster said in her 80-second speech. “And if it weren’t for his diagnosis of ALS in July 2014, there is no doubt that Principal Connolly would continue to serve the students of Concord High.”
Connolly made the decision to retire earlier this year, as the progression of his ALS has made him unable to speak and walk. He has often said that without his disease, he would have liked to continue on as principal into his 70s.
Connolly will step down from his post in July; Rundlett Middle School Principal Tom Sica will succeed him.
Kuster and Connolly met in person two weeks ago, as he made the trip to Capitol Hill to advocate for three different pieces of legislation to support ALS patients. The congresswoman greeted Connolly, his wife, Patty, and his daughter, Ally Connolly Davis, warmly during the visit.
They sat in her blue office for part of the afternoon, discussing the legislation and sharing stories.
In her speech, Kuster called the meeting a “privilege.” In an interview Tuesday, she said her meeting with the Connollys had motivated her to make the speech.
“I wanted to recognize him as a role model,” she said. “I’m just so inspired by Gene, having been at the high school several times over the past several years, having watched the progression of his illness (and) the engagement of students and staff.”
Kuster has visited Concord High regularly over the past few years and said her most recent visit earlier this year had made a particular impression on her.
It was her first time seeing Connolly after he lost his speech. He introduced Kuster on the school’s morning announcements by typing a phrase into his iPad, she remembered.
“This time when I went back, there was so much compassion and total respect for him,” she said. “It makes me very proud of Concord High School.”
Kuster said she sees Connolly’s lessons as an educator as a powerful testament to including those with disabilities and progressive diseases in school and the workplace.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing that young people and then hopefully society as a whole will embrace the whole person . . . the intention, the commitment, the courage of Gene Connolly as a person.”
Kuster has a personal tie to another degenerative illness – her mother had Alzheimer’s disease.
Watching Connolly continue to do his job and educate students even as he battles ALS is deeply moving for Kuster, she said.
“It’s a testament to his unparalleled leadership and courage that even in the face of extreme adversity, Principal Connolly is spending his time advocating for legislation that will benefit ALS patients in the future,” she said in her speech Tuesday. “He has changed the lives of generations of Concord students, and while we are all sad that principal Connolly’s tenure will come to a close this summer, there is no doubt that his leadership, his courage and his spirit will continue to inspire future generations of students at Concord High and beyond.”
Kuster added that she hopes her speech on the floor spurs her colleagues in the House to listen to Connolly’s story and take action on the three pieces of legislation he and his family were advocating for earlier this month.
“My speaking on the floor today was one more reminder to my colleagues that medical research (on) degenerative disease is important and should be on our agenda,” Kuster said. “I want my colleagues in Congress to support the bills.”
(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, email@example.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)