Documentary on Gene Connolly to be broadcast nationally on PBS

  • Concord High School former principal Gene Connolly sits outside the school waiting for students on a cold morning. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

  • Former CHS principal Gene Connolly greets Samuel Habib at a previous homecoming event. Courtesy

  • Local filmmaker Dan Habib participates in a discussion about how to approach a school-wide viewing of his short documentary about retired principal Gene Connolly during a meeting at the school on April 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 6/8/2018 12:35:49 PM

In Concord, Gene Connolly is a household name.

Next week and beyond, the rest of the country will get to meet the former Concord High School principal through the national public television airing of the documentary film, Mr. Connolly Has ALS.

By Concord filmmaker Dan Habib, Mr. Connolly Has ALS chronicles Connolly’s final year as principal of the school, while he spoke to students through his iPad and got around the hallways on an electric scooter.

One of the things that made Connolly’s story so unique is that as an educator, he wanted his diagnosis and struggle with the disease to be a learning opportunity for the students and the school community.

Connolly embodied his message to make the most of each day and never take life for granted. He continued to do the things he loved, including a longstanding tradition of greeting students outside the school every morning before the first bell and riding his electric scooter into classrooms and the cafeteria – getting hugs and fist-bumps from kids wherever he went.

He allowed his last year at school to be documented by the Monitor, and said he hoped living with his illness so publicly would teach students about overcoming adversity and appreciating life. He took a similar approach to the film, Mr. Connolly Has ALS, granting Habib access to private family moments.

Connolly’s decision to live so openly with the disease made an impression on students; many said his example made them take stock of their own lives, and think twice before complaining about SATs or too much homework.

In the film, current and former students ask Connolly questions about living with the disease, including an exchange between Connolly and Habib’s son Samuel, who has cerebral palsy.

Samuel asked Connolly how he became principal and Connolly gave him a rundown of his resume, including taking the helm at Concord High in 2002.

The exchange mirrors a previous one between Connolly and Samuel that was Habib’s inspiration for the film.

“As I watched Gene and my son speak to each other using their computer communication devices, I knew I needed to document this journey,” Habib said. “Thankfully, Gene was also interested in sharing his story and the students of Concord High welcomed the opportunity to have open and honest conversations about how to live life fully, develop resilience, and approach an inevitable death with honesty and dignity.”

Habib said the documentary was an incredibly personal journey. Habib’s first landmark film, Including Samuel featured his family’s efforts to include Samuel in everyday life despite his disability. That award-winning film has been screened at universities, national conferences and independent theaters across the country. It was broadcast nationally on public television stations in the fall of 2009. Samuel is due to graduate next week from Concord High.

Mr. Connolly Has ALS will be aired on PBS stations around the country on Monday at 6 and 9 p.m. It will also be available on Tuesday to be viewed online for free for one month on WORLD, PBS, and the PBS app. Captions will be available to viewers.

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