Connolly and family reflect on life before and after ALS diagnosis 

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

  • Patty Connolly laughs through her tears as she talks about both the hardships and good times to come with her children and husband, Gene Connolly, during a panel discussion following the premiere of "Mr. Connolly Has ALS" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Filmmaker Dan Habib introduces his documentary “Mr. Connolly Has ALS” before its premiere at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Former Concord High School principal Gene Connolly attends a panel discussion following the premiere of "Mr. Connolly Has ALS" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Former Concord High School principal Gene Connolly uses a laser pointer attached to his glasses and a chart, held by his son Jim Connolly, to communicate before a premiere of "Mr. Connolly Has ALS" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A panel discussion followed the premiere of "Mr. Connolly Has ALS" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Dan Habib introduces his film, "Mr. Connolly Has ALS," before its premiere at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A panel discussion followed the premiere of "Mr. Connolly Has ALS" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A panel discussion followed the premiere of "Mr. Connolly Has ALS" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A panel discussion followed the premiere of "Mr. Connolly Has ALS" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A panel discussion followed the premiere of "Mr. Connolly Has ALS" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A panel discussion followed the premiere of "Mr. Connolly Has ALS" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 5/24/2017 12:32:38 AM

Speaking publicly for the first time in a year, retired Concord High School principal Gene Connolly reflected on his twin legacies of living publicly with a debilitating disease and fighting for inclusion in the city’s schools.

“This experience has only made me more sure that inclusion is an essential part of education and life,” Connolly said on Tuesday night, speaking through the voice synthesizer on his iPad at Red River Theatres in Concord. “I truly believe that our public schools are the spaces where we have to be pushing for inclusion. That by pushing for inclusion in this space, it ripples out into our communities and into our world.”

Connolly’s daughter Ally Davis, a teacher at Christa McAuliffe elementary school in Concord, said she sees the impact of her father’s work every day.

“I love seeing students being included in the general classroom setting and seeing the positive impact it’s had on all my students,” Davis said.

She added that her father’s legacy will far outlast his time working in the school district.

“The compassion, understanding and empathy that they learned through inclusion will be something that lives on forever,” she said. “The impact of this will reach students far beyond our time at school.”

Connolly and his family addressed the crowd that turned out for the premiere of “Mr. Connolly Has ALS,” a documentary by local filmmaker Dan Habib about the principal’s last year at the helm of Concord High School.

Habib was originally inspired to make the film when he saw Connolly communicating nonverbally with his son Samuel, a Concord High student born with cerebral palsy.

The filmmaker envisioned the project as being driven by questions from the high school students who saw Connolly every day. Thousands of students submitted interview questions, which were whittled down to dozens, and eventually posed to the principal by individual Concord High students.

“This is a great way to continue Gene’s legacy,” Habib said on Tuesday.

Over the course of the past year, Connolly’s physical abilities have declined further, but he said his family, friends and the Concord community have continued making his quality of life great.

“I have found that I am blessed in so many ways,” Connolly said. “The outpouring of love I feel from past students, parents and teachers whenever I go out amazes me. So many people toot their horns, give a wave, stop and talk. I can feel so much love.”

Connolly thanked friends for continuing to stop by and keep him updated on their day-to-day lives. First and foremost, he thanked his family.

“The love and care, kindness and support they give to me is overwhelming,” he said. “I am grateful for all that they do for me every day. They are true heroes.”

Wiping away tears after the documentary had concluded, Connolly’s immediate family sat at the front of the theater and took questions about the lessons Connolly imparted to them, both before and after his diagnosis.

Son-in-law Ryan Davis told a story about the first time he met Gene and his wife, Patty, on a summer trip to Cape Cod.

Davis recalled that after coffee, a morning run and breakfast, Patty looked at Connolly and asked if there was anything she could get for him.

“He looked up and said, ‘I don’t think there’s anything you can get me, I’m about as happy as I could be right now,’ ” Davis recalled. “He had it figured out. He was truly happy, and I wanted that.”

Since his diagnosis, Davis and other family members said Connolly’s constant drive to be a better person and make a difference in others’ lives had rubbed off on them.

“My job has me in and out of schools all over New Hampshire,” Davis said. “I’m constantly walking by people I don’t know. You have that awkward – you make eye contact with somebody you don’t know – and in the back of my head, I hear Gene: ‘Say hi.’ So I say hi.”

Connolly’s son Jim talked about how he moved back into his childhood home to care for his father as he became sick.

“When I graduated high school and went to college, I left the nest pretty early,” Jim said. “I was pretty excited to start my own life, and I didn’t really think I would be moving back home.”

He said his father’s illness changed that, and also changed their father-son relationship.

“The benefit for me is striking up a whole new type of bond with my father,” he said. “I view him as my best friend, and I asked him to be my best man, because he is my best friend. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Dry eyes were hard to find at the end of the film, but Patty Connolly urged the audience to stay positive, and know that her family was staying positive, too.

“There’s a lot of tears and sadness with this, but Gene doesn’t want us to be that way,” Patty said. “We don’t want pity; we want joy and love. Let it show all the time. What you people do for us and our family is amazing, it’s well beyond what either of us could have imagined.”

Because Patty still works as a teacher in neighboring Hopkinton, the family often relies on friends to volunteer to help care for Connolly during the day. The speed with which their volunteer signup sheets fill up is a reflection of how many people he has impacted in the community, she said.

“I know all of you know Gene and know how genuine he is,” Patty said. “It’s really all his heart, all the time. Every day, to give every day your best, do your best, love your family. It can change at any minute.”

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




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