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Lasting lessons: Gene Connolly’s life observations from 2015

  • Concord High School principal Gene Connolly at the last assembly of the year. GEOFF FORESTER


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Gene Connolly’s remarks at the Concord Monitor’s “2015 Capital Region Fall High School Athletes of the Season Awards”

I want to begin by sharing how honored I am to be invited to speak to this wonderful collection of student athletes. I was also surprised that I was invited because I have lost my ability to speak. I am going to qualify that I have lost the use of my vocal cords, but because of modern technology I have a machine that allows me to speak. While the voice is computer generated, the words are all mine. However, all of you are missing my Boston accent. My new computer-generated voice is called Tom. Tom is from somewhere outside of New England. I am not sure where but think he is from out in the Midwest somewhere.

This afternoon I have decided not to give a speech about all the wonderful things you learn from competing in athletics. Instead I am going to share observations that I have made since being diagnosed with terminal illness 18 months ago.

First, learn to pay attention. I recently read an article about the danger of daydreaming. The author of the study was reporting that day-dreamers are less happy with their lives than people who live in the moment. We hear that term a lot, how it is important to live in the moment. In all honesty, I am probably the last person who should give this advice. Truth is I did not appreciate this message until after I was diagnosed. For almost 60 years I had been guilty of always looking ahead. While that sentiment might have helped with my career, it didn’t help me to appreciate all the wonderful moments in my life. Now I find myself living in the moment more than ever and enjoying more.

Be excellent. I remember like it was yesterday when I got my first position as a school administrator. It was at Londonderry Middle School. The principal was Nancy Meyers, who within five minutes of my entering the building on that first day had me sit down and then told me to never say “good enough” because I was now working in Londonderry, and people who were fortunate enough to work in Londonderry knew anything worth doing is done right and never “good enough.” I remind myself of that advice every day.

Another quote that I find useful, especially when I am tired and want to quit and be something less than excellent is the famous Vince Lombardi quote: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Try that one out when it is late, you’re tired and you have homework due the next day.

Say hello to everyone you see. I am a proud graduate of Springfield College. While I learned many important lessons, there is one I use every day: to greet everyone on campus. At Springfield it was expected that you acknowledge everyone all of the time. That was a real rule on campus. For years I had stood, now I sit, and greet students and staff as they enter the building. It has become a tradition at the school. I like it because the simple, effortless task of saying hello usually brings a smile to the receiver’s face.

Have courage. Three years ago, our senior class invited CHS alumna and Olympic gold medalist Tara Mounsey to speak at their graduation. One of her messages that day was for graduates to have courage. During the last 18 months I have found myself thinking about her message. Often courage can take many forms. People who are courageous may be frightened and afraid, but they summon the strength to do the right thing.

Think before you speak. Now that I have to type my words into a program, I am forever behind in conversations. Many times I will be typing frantically to say something brilliant, and by the time I finish typing I’ll look at my message and I erase it because it really wasn’t that insightful nor important. Losing my ability to speak has forced me to be a better listener. It is not that I was a poor listener before, but I have become an excellent listener now. I hear more than a person’s words. I have a greater sensitivity to a person’s tone, the nonverbal message that is every bit as important as their words. This will not be of use for you this afternoon, listening to me. As I told you before, my voice is named Tom and he is from the Midwest. And he’s free of emotion.

Embrace gratitude. Expressing thanks for all you have is a lost emotion in our society. If you are ever in the neighborhood, come by and visit Concord High School. Over 15 percent of our students were not born in this country. Most spent significant time in refugee camps, and after years of waiting to be vetted they were sent to Concord, New Hampshire for resettlement. Almost 200 new Americans attend Concord High School, and they helped make us a better school. Unlike other communities, the city of Concord celebrates their arrival. They enrich us with their culture while we share ours, and of all the lessons they share with us the most important is that we need to be grateful for all that we have because if you ask them about their journey, they will tell you there are no bad days living in the United States.

Don’t be afraid to tell someone that you love them. When I was in high school and college, it was the height of uncoolness to tell someone that you loved them and I followed the rules. While I am going to give you permission this afternoon to break the rule, the new rule is: If you love someone you have to tell them.

Tell the truth. Randy Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon when his doctors told him he had cancer and it was terminal. He gave an interview, and the interviewer asked him if he had only three words that he could pass on what would he say. Pausch replied, “Tell the truth.” The reporter, not impressed with the answer, asked him if he had another three words, what would he say. Pausch replied, “All the time.”

Family comes first. I realize that you have heard this bit of advice before. I want to give you first-hand testimony how true it is. I am one of seven children and my wife one of nine. The amount of love bestowed on me from Patty’s and my siblings has been overwhelming. The notes, hugs and kisses remind me how lucky I am to be a part of an incredible family. Since getting sick, my daughter and her husband, Ryan, moved back to Concord and my son moved back home. They have been part of an inner circle of folks who take care of my daily needs. And let me share with you, I have become a lot of work.

Lastly, let me tell you about my wife, Patty, who teaches and coaches in Hopkinton. Patty and I will be celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary later this month. Patty has always been the center of our family. We have raised two talented kids who are both educators and coaches. Our son Jimmy, teaches English at Winnacunnet High School and our daughter, Ally, teaches fourth grade in Concord. Soon after being diagnosed I realized that Patty had it worse than I do. When we were married 35 years ago, it wasn’t supposed to end like this. We had started talking about retiring to Cape Cod and getting old together living by the ocean. The reality is that dream is up in the air. Life is not for the faint of heart. It can be cruel and unfair. Living a fulfilling life can be challenging. Our job is to live our lives with purpose. No one can go it alone. You need the love of your family to give you the strength to deal with life’s challenges.

That is the end of my list. Let’s review: pay attention, be excellent, say hello to everyone you see, have courage, think before you speak, embrace gratitude, don’t be afraid to tell someone that you love them, tell the truth all the time and family comes first.

Thank you, and thank you for letting Tom speak for me.