Life Matters Media
Quality of life at the end of life

ALS Can’t Break Mr. Connolly’s Spirit

BY DANIEL GAITAN | daniel@lifemattersmedia.org

Imagine speaking to a packed auditorium and slurring your words.

Imagine you’re a completely sober high school principal and everyone — students, teachers and parents — is wondering whether you’re drunk or high.

Imagine going to the doctor a few weeks later and learning you’re going to slowly lose control of your body and fast approach the end of life.

That’s what happened to a New Hampshire principal in 2014.

“I was in shock. It was like being in a bad dream. I wanted to wake up.”

That’s how Concord High School Principal Gene Connolly described to students his reaction to learning he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS, an incurable neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

ALS is a cruel disease, affecting 30,000 people in the United States. Every year, 5,000 people are diagnosed with it. Their minds stay sharp as their bodies dull.

“I knew this disease would kill me,” Connolly told the student-run news network CHS Live.

For 14 years, Connolly was the school’s beloved leader until he could no longer teach. Unable to walk or talk without a computer program, he made his illness a teachable moment until his departure in 2016.

For two years, he allowed students to ask him frank, sometimes dark questions about death and dying. His wisdom was broadcast on the school’s morning announcements.

“Life isn’t for the faint of heart. Live it with purpose,” Connolly, now in his 50s, told his students.

Connolly is the subject of Mr. Connolly Has ALS, the powerful new documentary short from director Dan Habib. Habib was inspired to share Connolly’s story after he learned about the profound effect he had on his teenage son Samuel, who is facing cerebral palsy.

The film sounds like a downer. It’s not. It’s a 30-minute motivator. You can’t watch this film and not want to go for a run or sing a song. It could be a coffee replacement.

And that’s the point.

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

One student asked him if he ever considered ending his life with doctor-prescribed drugs.

“I have thought about it, but I am one of the world’s optimists,” he replied.

Another asked him if people treat him differently. The answer: an unfortunate yes.

“I have noticed that when people approach me they talk to me differently. While I look different, I am the same person,” he said, adding that it’s a source of frustration.

Like this documentary, life is too short to dwell on the inevitable. Everyone will die, it’s just a matter of when and how. We’re all Connolly’s students.

“Don’t be afraid to tell someone you love them,” Connolly said. “If you love someone, you have to tell them.”