‘Here was his paradise’ – Concord High students reflect on Gene Connolly documentary

  • Former Concord High School principal Gene Connolly greets Samuel Habib at the CHS homecoming. The photo is included in Dan Habib’s latest documentary. Dan Habib / Courtesy

Monitor staff
Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The sophomores in Tim Beaulieu’s first-period math class had never heard former principal Gene Connolly’s real voice until Tuesday morning.

Their first year at Concord High School coincided with Connolly’s last. He still was everywhere at the school after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, but the Class of 2019 heard him communicate only through a voice synthesizer on his iPad, using a walker and motorized scooter to get around.

On Tuesday, Concord High students all watched a new documentary about Connolly by local filmmaker Dan Habib.

“You guys probably didn’t know the Mr. Connolly that I knew,” Beaulieu told them, before pressing play.

The students watched the film intently, laughing at some of the old clips of Connolly getting a pie to the face on CHS Live and rocking out on the electric guitar at the Capitol Center for the Arts.

When the film was over and the lights came back on, they talked about the short amount of time they’d had with the former principal.

“I wish I had known him better,” said student David Milliken.

Nevertheless, Connolly’s insights on living a fulfilling life and persevering through a debilitating disease struck a chord with the students. In the film, he answered student questions on everything from how he became a principal to whether he had done everything he wanted to do in life.

“A lot of the advice he gave throughout the movie, I loved it,” Milliken said, adding that he especially took to heart Connolly’s mantra of saying hello to everyone.

Beaulieu agreed, thinking back to Connolly’s constant presence outside the school in the morning to greet each student before the bell rang – even in the rain and snow.

“It was almost weird not to see him out there,” Beaulieu said.

The class also reflected on Connolly’s close ties with the high school and surrounding community.

“He could have been anywhere else in the world,” said student Noah Giffard. “He stayed here and built a nice community. Here was his paradise.”

As a freshman last year, Hannah Waite was one of the students selected to ask Connolly a question for the film, and it made the final cut.

On the day of filming, she remembered staying on set for about an hour and listening to all the conversations.

“It was really emotional,” she said. “People were crying.”

On Tuesday, tears continued to flow after Habib showed the film to the school’s seniors, who’d had the most time with Connolly as principal.

“They had a distinct relationship with Gene,” said Concord High Principal Tom Sica. “It was very powerful.”

The students embraced the sadness of the film, but also the funny clips of a goofy, laughing Connolly interspersed throughout.

“To see some of those pictures of Gene running around throughout the building, they took that as a gift that Dan (Habib) gave to them,” Sica said. “That family, that sense of community.”

Students talked about how Concord High could continue to build on Connolly’s legacy of inclusion.

“The discussion really followed up on those themes,” Habib said. “They talked about how the school can become a more compassionate place.”

Sica said he and the staff are grateful for Habib’s filming throughout Connolly’s last year at the school, and added the film captures the spirit of the school.

“The work Dan has done on this is a gift to our school community, and really beyond the school community,” Sica said. “It’s humbling when a mirror gets held up and you catch a glimpse of who you want to be. Gene Connolly is helping hold up that mirror.”

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