In his last year, CHS principal Gene Connolly delivered his biggest lesson

  • Concord High School Principal Gene Connolly attends the last assembly of the year. He is set to retire after 14 years as principal. BELOW: Connolly listens to a choir practice at the school earlier this month, just one of many activities he attends daily. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Concord High School Principal Gene Connolly attends the last assembly of the year. He is set to retire after 14 years as principal. BELOW: Connolly listens to a choir practice at the school earlier this month, just one of many activities he attends daily. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Concord High School principal Gene Connolly listens to a band practice last month at the school. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Gene Connolly always knew he wanted to be an educator.
“I always thought that teaching was a noble profession,” he said. “And it is true, the intrinsic rewards are wonderful.”

Over his 14 years at the helm of Concord High School, Connolly has left a lasting impression on thousands of students.

He greeted everyone each morning on the walk up to school with a wave, a peace sign or a fist bump. He loved lunch duty in the cafeteria and jumped at the opportunity to clean up after the kids, asking them to help. He started “CHS Live,” the televised morning announcements, which is now entirely run by students.

For years, Connolly attended countless after-school games, concerts and activities. He would quietly look in on extracurricular groups including the Feminist Club and Be the Change Club, and sit in the student section of the bleachers at games.

When kids landed in his office for a disciplinary issue, Connolly rarely raised his voice and chose his words carefully, reminding them to expect more from themselves.

Students past and present remember his genuine interest in their lives and treating everyone with respect.

“He wanted people to know that equality exists,” said 2013 Concord High graduate Ben Nawn.

His ALS diagnosis in 2014 has taken a physical toll, but did nothing to diminish his will to keep doing what he loves – his job as principal.

Connolly likes to say that Concord High has a “big heart,” and many of the school’s staff and students say he is a large piece of that.

“He is what makes it beat,” said his administrative assistant Lisa Lamb. “But I also think he surrounds himself with the right people to help him with that. This is just like my family, whether it’s the building or the people.”

A constant presence

A few weeks ago, Connolly sat quietly in the back of the Concord High School choir room as the sounds of Queen’s “Under Pressure” filled the air.

A smile spread across the principal’s face as he listened to the kids, harmonizing and snapping their fingers along to the music.

When it was time to leave, several turned around in their seats to say, “Goodbye, Mr. Connolly!”

Sitting at her piano, choir teacher Brin Cowette laughed.

“We had such good behavior while you were here!” she exclaimed. Connolly smiled again, slowly put his hand on the steering control of his scooter, and motored out of the classroom.

Concord High School Athletic Director Steve Mello said he believes Connolly’s appeal to students lies in his reliability.

“Gene is every day,” he said. “He’s consistent, he’s available, he’s there. He’s not a shooting star, he’s very consistent.”

Connolly said he realized that in addition to visibility, earning the respect of kids was also important.

“Being visible is important but you have to have substance,” he said. “(Students) know a lot more than they let on. They have the adults figured out.”

Many Concord High students, past and present, say Connolly regarded them as young adults, not kids.

“Everybody really did respect him 100 percent,” said 2011 Concord High graduate Summer Olsen. “He earned our trust.”

Olson and her friend, Rebecca Baroody, said it was always clear to them that Connolly took pride in his job, and took the time to go to as many games, concerts, theater performances and after-school activities as he could fit in his schedule.

“If I’m still talking about it now at 23, it speaks volumes about how I enjoyed my time there,” Baroody said.

Connolly was also principal during a period of time when Concord saw an influx of refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. There were just 20 new American students when he started in 2002; that number has since multiplied to 160.

Ayi D’Almeida was one of those students, arriving in Concord in 2008, fresh out of a refugee camp in Ghana with little English and no knowledge of his new home.

“I was a little nervous, I didn’t know what the system is going to be, what (is) the expectation,” D’Almeida said. He added that Connolly was always approachable and happy, which helped him feel comfortable and do well in school.

“Having him as a principal did give me a different perspective that there’s hope, there’s people who would be willing to help you adjust to the culture here,” he said. “Just having that leader, someone who was in charge being that friendly gives me hope.”

Laughter and love

The act of greeting people was driven into Connolly early on, as a student at Springfield College.

Though he admits he was shy as a young adult, Springfield College had a rule on campus that you had to greet everyone you saw. Connolly took that lesson to Concord High when he first arrived, placing himself outside the building every morning to greet students and staff.

“He wasn’t a typical principal that would sit in the office and hide, he was involved,” said Matt Curtis, a 2012 Concord High School graduate, who was the star of a video series called “Thursdays with Curt” that Connolly dreamed up and was filmed by fellow student Derek Thomson.

The videos included everything from Curtis seeing how many donuts he could fit into his mouth, to going swimming in the White Park duck pond in 45 -degree weather, to pretending to jump off the Concord High roof and have Connolly catch him.

Curtis was well-known around the high school for his pranks, but with Connolly, pranking was a two-way street. One time, Connolly and the school resource officer teamed up to play a joke on Curtis, telling him the Concord police were looking for him after he walked out of a service at Temple Beth Jacob wearing a borrowed yarmulke. The two men played along, with Curtis getting increasingly nervous until they couldn’t hold back their laughter anymore.

“He would just laugh, laugh, laugh,” Curtis remembered, chuckling. “It would be almost anything, if I could give him a reason, he would find a reason to pick on me.”

Connolly’s 2014 ALS diagnosis coincided with the viral ALS ice bucket challenge. True to form, Curtis went big with his video, getting doused with 400 pounds of ice and water poured off the back of a massive CAT dump truck. The impact of the cascading water knocked his hard-hat askew and nearly toppled him over.

As current and former students made ice bucket videos, the Concord community banded together in 2014 and 2015 for “Connolly Tough” walks, raising thousands for his medical costs.

Connolly and his wife, Patty, say the walks were an incredible gesture from a tight-knit city they’ve always cherished.

“The people in the community have always been great, even before Gene was sick,” Patty said. “Always just wonderful to us. And then after the illness, they’ve really shown a lot of love. We just love it, we love this town.”

The biggest lesson

Connolly was diagnosed with ALS in the summer of 2014, but decided to stay on as principal as long as he could.

“Fighting the disease, is you get up in the morning with a purpose,” Connolly told Derek Thomson in an interview last year, when he was still able to speak. “I get up early ’cause I got to get to work. I get there and the kids have been so kind to me. And I feel good.”

Over the course of his first year with ALS, Connolly’s gruff Boston accent began to slur. As he gradually lost the ability to speak, Connolly transitioned to typing his sentences into a robotic-sounding voice synthesizer on his iPad.

Connolly bestowed the name Tom on his new voice, and liked to tell people Tom hailed from the Midwest and spoke devoid of emotion.

Connolly started out this year with a cane, but after a few falls, he made the switch to a motorized scooter, which he used to zip around hallways, opening the double doors of the main office by crashing through them and making his secretaries jump.

Throughout it all, he has tried to come to work every day and students say he is no less visible this school year than in years past. And they love him for it.

“You see him in the hallways and he’s always smiling,” said Concord High senior Ben Nelson. “You’re always happy when you see him, you’re always happy when his presence is there.”

Even after Connolly’s leg muscles weakened and he got a scooter, he got out as much as possible, zipping around the hallways. “Making up for lost time,” Connolly said.

Concord High junior Maddy Simpson said she’s always seen Connolly in all different places at the school – cruising around the art and music wing in his scooter and stopping at each and every lunch table in the cafeteria to greet students.

“He sees everybody and he treats everybody the same way,” Simpson said.

Though this year has brought many physical changes for Connolly, staff and students say it hasn’t changed a thing when it comes to how Connolly interacts with the kids.

“He hasn’t changed his approach to life, he’s always come in here and make a great day out of every day,” Mello said. “I think a lot of people come to some kind of epiphany when they become ill . . . that’s not him. He was just as inspirational with those kids five years ago as he was five minutes ago.”

Connolly said he hopes seeing him continue to work while battling ALS will demonstrate resilience and perseverance to his students, as well as the community’s kindness to him.

“Do what you love,” he said. “It has never been a job.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)