Themes of ‘Mr. Connolly Has ALS’ go far beyond Concord’s borders 

  • Concord High principal Gene Connolly attends an assembly in April 2017. GEOFF FORESTER Monitor file

Monitor staff
Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Gene Connolly said he always knew his story was bigger than him.

When the Concord High School principal was diagnosed with ALS in 2014, he shared his experience in hopes that it would teach his students about overcoming adversity and appreciating life.

He allowed his last year at Concord High to be documented by the Monitor and by local filmmaker Dan Habib.

Habib’s film, Mr. Connolly has ALS, won Connolly and Habib a Virginia Bowden Advocacy Award, presented by the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities on Dec. 14.

At a ceremony at the Holiday Inn in Concord, Developmental Disabilities Council Executive Director Isadora Rodriguez-Legendre called Mr. Connolly Has ALS “a catalyst for inclusive education.”

“The questions threaded throughout the documentary help to explore the themes that Connolly’s ALS catalyzed in the community: how to live life fully, develop resilience, show love freely and identify priorities,” she said.

Rodriguez-Legendre also touted major questions addressed in the film: “what it feels like to acquire a disability; how people perceive individuals with disabilities and how to approach an inevitable death with honesty and dignity.”

The relevance of these themes extends far beyond Concord’s borders. The film has received worldwide recognition – in May, it was screened in Washington for members of Congress.

It also received an International Documentary Association award nomination.

Habib said he’s now working on organizing a national public television broadcast of the film, which features conversations between the Connolly and his students about his terminal neurodegenerative disease, his life, his beliefs and his hopes. The film premiered in Concord in May.

The project was inspired in part by Habib’s admiration for Connolly, and by Habib’s experience as a caretaker for his son, Samuel, a Concord High student who has cerebral palsy.

The filmmaker said he’s especially proud of how Concord’s inclusive community is portrayed in the film. He said a rewarding part of showing the film outside the city is seeing how others react to Connolly’s story.

“I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘I wish I could be a student at his school,’ or, ‘I wish we had that spirit of inclusion and acceptance at our school,’ ” he said.

Habib said the recognition has been great, but that the project has never been about that. The goal was to showcase Connolly’s legacy, and to spread awareness about what it’s like to live with a disability.

“Everything beyond that has really been a bonus,” he said.

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)