“Mr. Connolly has ALS” – Documentary on former CHS principal premieres Tuesday

  • Concord High School students Jon Weinberg (left to right), Brinkley Brown and Ryan Warner participate in a discussion about how to approach a school-wide viewing of local filmmaker Dan Habib's short documentary about retired principal Gene Connolly during a meeting at the school on April 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Concord High School students, administrators and local filmmaker Dan Habib discuss Habib’s short documentary about retired principal Gene Connolly and how to approach a school-wide viewing during a meeting on April 17. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Concord High School student Samuel Habib participates in a discussion about how to approach a school-wide viewing of local filmmaker Dan Habib's short documentary about retired principal Gene Connolly during a meeting at the school on April 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Concord High School senior Ryan Warner (left) and English teacher Jon Kelly watch local filmmaker Dan Habib's short documentary about retired principal Gene Connolly during a meeting at the school on April 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Local filmmaker Dan Habib participates in a discussion of his short documentary on retired principal Gene Connolly during a meeting at the high school April 17. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Kati Preston talks about the hate and anger she immediately felt after learning how her father died at Auschwitz during WWII. Preston no longer holds hate in her heart, only sorrow. She told the story of her Holocaust survival from her home in Center Barnstead on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Gene Connolly still knows how to keep his family laughing at their Concord home this past week. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gene and Patty Connolly are seen in the living room of their Concord home last week. Dan Habib’s documentary on Connolly, “Mr. Connolly has ALS,” premieres at Red River Theatre on Tuesday – though both showings are already sold out. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

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

  • His eyes bright and his sense of humor intact, Gene Connolly knows how to keep his family laughing. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/20/2017 11:55:55 PM

Three years ago, Concord High Principal Gene Connolly welcomed parents and students to the annual Back to School Night, as he had done so many times before.

Except this time, something was different. His speech, with his thick Boston accent, was tinged with a slur.

Parents whispered whether Connolly, a pillar of the Concord community and principal for over a decade, had been drinking on the job. The reality was much different: Many in the audience didn’t know he had just been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – also known as ALS – a terminal, neurodegenerative disease that gradually weakens a person’s muscles.

That night – the first time people in Concord
saw a change in Connolly – is featured in the beginning of the new documentary, Mr. Connolly has ALS.

Since then, Connolly decided to stay public about his illness, continuing on as principal for another two years before stepping down last June. Students watched as his speech went from slurred to the robotic voice of an iPad that spoke for him. They saw his athletic legs require a walker to help him through the school’s halls, and eventually give way to a motorized wheelchair.

Throughout it all, Connolly’s message to the Concord community was to make the most out 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 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 now by New Hampshire filmmaker Dan Habib, who’s son, Samuel, is a Concord High student.

Connolly said he hoped living with his illness so publicly would teach students about overcoming adversity and appreciating life.

It made an impression on them; many said the example set by their principal made them take stock of their own lives, and think twice before complaining about SAT’s or too much homework.

“If he gets up every morning and he goes to school, and he goes to our games – with everything he’s going through – we should be able to do anything,” said Michaella Conery, a Concord High student who graduated last year.

‘Make every day count’

Habib was first inspired to make the film after he and Samuel encountered Connolly during a 2015 homecoming parade. Connolly was still walking, but could no longer speak, and he greeted the Habibs by typing words on his iPad.

The similarity to his own son made an impression on the filmmaker; Samuel was born with cerebral palsy and also uses a communication device to speak.

“I said, ‘This can’t be happening anywhere else in the country,’ ” Habib recalled.

However, the power of Connolly’s story didn’t hit Habib until months later, when he sent files of raw footage to his editors in New York and Los Angeles.

“(They) said, ‘this is really amazing stuff, this is a powerful story,’” Habib recalled. “That’s when I started thinking, this could be a really strong film.”

Habib’s short documentary will premiere at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, followed by a panel discussion with Connolly’s family and former students. Connolly will also give a prepared speech. The two first showings are already sold out, but the theater will be screening the film for a week after.

“I think it’s also getting people to think about their own lives in some ways and their own sense of purpose in their own lives, which is also a difficult thing to be forced to confront,” Habib said.

The filmmaker enlisted Concord High students to ask Connolly questions about his life, illness and outlook on the future. Questions ranged from serious to lighthearted, including how he first became a principal and whether he had ever considered assisted suicide.

“Those are big, big life questions that he took to,” Habib. “They were honest and provocative, at times funny. That prompted Gene to give some very honest and revealing answers.”

Many students asked Connolly questions about how to live fully, knowing you were short on time.

“I look at every day as a gift,” he told one. “I know my time at Concord High is limited and I want to make every day count.”

Life after retirement

It’s been almost a year since Connolly retired from Concord High School. His days are quieter, but there is still plenty of activity. He has continued to attend sporting events when he can, and students come to visit. Earlier this winter, the Concord High choir walked over to Connolly’s house to serenade him with Christmas carols as the snow fell.

Connolly and Concord natives Dylan and Derek Thomson were recently honored by the Boston Celtics at TD Garden for their cross-country bicycle trip to raise awareness for ALS. In the process, the brothers also raised $30,000 to donate to the family’s medical expenses that aren’t covered by insurance.

In the past year, Connolly has gradually lost the use of his arms and legs. He breathes heavily and at times needs to use a machine.

The breathing machine softly whirred in the corner of the living room on a recent evening as the Connolly family gathered to talk to Habib about the upcoming screening. Gene’s wife Patty chided the family dog, Atticus, for chewing loudly on his squeaky toys while Habib talked. Undeterred, the black lab trotted off to get his Mr. Bill dog toy. He contentedly flopped down on the floor, with the character’s “oh noooooo’s!” punctuating the conversation.

Above an IV pole with feeding tubes, hung three pictures of Gene, his son Jimmy and daughter Ally all running track during college.

Framed on the wall, the photo shows a young Gene rounding the corner of a track at his alma matter, Springfield College. In it, he’s wearing a red jersey and shorts, his skinny frame and bushy dark hair on full display.

“We are a track family,” Connolly said, adding, “Ally was the best.”

Sitting in his power wheelchair with a laser pointer attached to his glasses, Connolly moves his head to aim the beam at a large posterboard containing multi-colored letters, words and symbols that hangs on his living room wall.

Connolly uses the symbol of a red heart to signify how important someone is to him, just as he used to pat his heart to show appreciation for students and friends. His family calls it the “coveted” red heart.

Slowly, Connolly pointed to each letter to spell words, repeated by his family in unison. Sometimes they finished his sentence for him, other words took longer and needed to be spelled out again.

Throughout Connolly’s illness, he and his family have found ways to laugh about it. It’s long been a sarcastic family joke that Connolly’s daughter Ally went to medical school (she’s scared of feeding tubes). When Connolly started losing his speech and having to mime words, he laughed that Patty had never been good at charades.

Watching Connolly lose his mobility has been difficult for his family members, but they say life is full of positive moments as well.

“I feel like it’s made me a better person,” said son-in-law Ryan Davis. “There’s good days and there’s bad days, but when you sit down, there’s a lot of positive.”

It has also brought them closer together; Connolly’s son Jimmy lives at home to help take care of Gene, and Patty says the experience has bonded the two.

“It’s been an amazing thing to watch,” she said.

Living life to it’s fullest has a lot of meaning to Connolly, and it’s still the message he and his family want to convey. They hope Habib’s film will spread it even further.

“I want his legacy to somehow come through,” said Patty. “People take it and look at their own lives. ‘How can I live each day?’”

Connolly nodded his head in agreement.

“I don’t want them to feel pity,” Patty added. “I want them to see the kind of life he led. Every day. Live every day.”

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

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