Former Concord High principal Gene Connolly dies after fight with ALS

  • Concord High School principal Gene Connolly attends the last assembly of the 2015-16 school year at Conord High School. Connolly, who left his post at the school after being diagnosed with ALS but kept a prominent place in the Concord community, died Sunday, Aug, 19, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

  • Former Concord High principal Gene Connolly greets Samuel Habib at the CHS homecoming. The photo is included in Dan Habib’s documentary, “Mr. Connolly has ALS.” Courtesy

  • Concord High principal Gene Connolly sits outside the school waiting for students on a cold morning. Connolly turned his battle with ALS into a lesson for the whole school community. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

  • Benjamin Greene (left) says hello to former Concord High School principal Gene Connolly and his family before the sold-out premiere of “Mr. Connolly Has ALS” at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. Monitor file

  • Former Concord High School principal Gene Connolly was present for the unveiling of the “Gene Connolly Press Box” at Memorial Field in Concord on Sept. 2, 2016. The naming was one of many ways in which the community has honored Connolly. Monitor file

  • Principal Gene Connolly smiles as he is presented with an award during the Concord High School graduation ceremony at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 18, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Alfred Kesseh greets Principal Gene Connolly on stage during the Concord High School graduation ceremony at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 18, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Connolly’s daughter Ally puts his hair up into a bun before he heads to school. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

  • The Concord High senior video paid tribute to retiring principal Gene Connolly. Courtesy photo

  • U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster hugs Gene Connolly after their meeting on Tuesday ELLA NILSEN

Monitor staff
Published: 8/19/2018 4:42:58 PM

Gene Connolly, Concord High School’s immensely popular principal who became a symbol of perseverance and courage through his battle with ALS, died Sunday morning, school officials confirmed. He was 62.

Connolly was diagnosed in 2014 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive, always-fatal neurodegenerative disease, yet he remained in his leadership position at the school until his retirement in 2016.

Connolly, who in his final year at the school communicated through a computerized device, never lost his connection to staff and students. He maintained his tradition of greeting them every morning as they arrived at school, even on the days when he needed to navigate the icy walkways in his wheelchair.

With education at his core, it came as no surprise that Connolly’s two children – Jim Connolly and Ally Davis – both pursued teaching careers. Davis teaches at Christa McAuliffe School in Concord, Jim Connolly at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton.

And while Gene Connolly will forever be remembered as a role model for the manner in which he conducted himself, both before and after his diagnosis, his son wouldn’t go there, relaying the kind of modesty that his father would have appreciated.

“He would not have viewed himself as a great man,” Jim Connolly said in a brief telephone interview Sunday night. “He would have viewed himself as a working man and someone who was good at his job, and that was getting to know students and people.”

The community rallied around Connolly after his illness was disclosed, with “Connolly Tough” fundraisers, the recent creation of a specialty craft brew and the naming of the press box at Memorial Field.

Connolly; his wife, Patty; and their children also opened their lives in his final years to both the Concord Monitor and to local filmmaker Dan Habib. The stories and Habib’s nationally released film, titled Mr. Connolly has ALS, documented the challenges the family faced, as well as the inspiration Connolly gave to students, colleagues and friends.

Habib, reached by phone on vacation in upstate New York, said he felt a special connection with Connolly because Habib’s son, Samuel, was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair and a computer to communicate.

“It was such a powerful story in my own backyard,” said Habib, who lives in Concord. “My son uses a communication device, and he was speaking to his principal and both were talking through computers, and that was powerful for me.”

Habib, mindful of Connolly’s dedication to education and realizing he wasn’t one to draw attention to himself, approached Connolly with an idea for a documentary that would revolve around the students, showing their reactions and coping mechanisms as news of their principal’s illness shot through the community.

“He’s such a student-driven principal,” Habib said. “I approached him with the idea that this would be student-focused, and as soon as I told him it would be students asking the questions, he was all in.”

Elsewhere, Derek Thomson and his brother, Dylan, had a special bond with their principal, as the pair rode bicycles across the country, from San Francisco to Seabrook, in 50 days to raise money for the Connolly family.

They raised about $30,000, said Derek Thomson, who graduated in 2012. The brothers faced wind while riding uphill in the Rockies, and both suffered from giardia, a harsh intestinal infection that causes vomiting.

“We were thinking of Mr. Connolly and how hard it was for him to go through life and his good attitude,” Thomson said. “He just powered through it, so we just kept going.”

Thomson, a professional videographer at St. Paul’s School, said Connolly had a huge impact on his life and career, always showing confidence in him and going above and beyond to help him follow his dream.

“Mr. Connolly had always pushed me to be the person I really wanted to be,” Thomson said. “I was really into video in Concord High, and he would allow me to go up on top of roofs and do crazy things that I wanted to do and he never said no.”

After high school, the principal continued to monitor the student, and in fact stepped in when Thomson needed him most.

“He wrote numerous recommendations,” Thomson said. “He called Emerson (College, Boston) and asked if he could come down to talk to the president of the school to say how much he enjoyed having me in high school.

“There was a personality about him where he would do anything for anyone he believed in,” Thomson continued, “and that translated into how I lived my life.”

Terri Forsten is the superintendent of the Concord School District. Her son, Erik, was a freshman during Connolly’s final year at Concord High.

In an email to the Monitor, Forsten said, “(Erik) saw Principal Connolly working to focus on teaching and learning, to promote a strong high school community and to greet everyone every day – all of that in the midst of knowing that his time would be relatively short. Erik just told me how much he admired Principal Connolly for being at peace with his diagnosis.”

That’s what seemed to hit the community the hardest – the grace and dignity Connolly showed in the face of an awful illness, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s Disease because it gained attention after killing the baseball superstar in 1941 at the age of 37.

Habib noted that even as Connolly began slowing down, no longer able to speak or walk, he focused on human connections and the human spirit more than anything else.

“He had a big board in the living room and he’d point to the heart on that board to tell (people) he loved them,” Habib said. “Gene became a role model for many for showing courage, which he did, but he would want the focus to be that he showed you can live a full life with a disability, and you can live it proudly and publicly even though you are severely disabled.”

Habib’s film was broadcast on PBS in 2017 and took about 1½ years to finish. It will be shown for free later this month on a special YouTube channel.

Jim Connolly said he hopes a final message will shine through in film and newspaper articles.

“I want to emphasize this from the family,” he said. “Thank you.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)




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