Fecteau: My Uncle’s Inspirational Struggle With ALS

Gene Connolly celebrating his 60th birthday, when he was principal of Concord High School.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is…It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

My family recently lost my uncle Gene Connolly to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It was brought to greater attention four years ago with the Ice Bucket Challenge and many around the world raised money to help combat it. Sadly, Gene leaves behind my aunt Patty, and cousins — Jim and Ally; a family that was there for him at all times.

ALS is a terrible disease. There is a life expectancy of only two to five years from diagnosis. ALS erodes the ability to muscle control, and impacts almost everything you do in your life; something as basic as picking up a pencil is a challenge. Eventually, even your speech is stolen. Gene first realized he had ALS after he began slurring his words and it sounded like he had “been drinking.”

Gene also leaves behind thousands of lives he touched as a principal at Concord High school, a place that will always remember him as almost a father figure. At school, Gene was known for his amazing personality, almost infinite energy, and as Patty says, his genuine love for the students; that is what makes this situation even more tragic: to see that energy sapped with each passing day.

Gene was such a remarkable person that once his community found out he contracted this awful disease, they rallied around him; after all, he was practically family. Even while diagnosed with the disease, he remained at the helm as principal of his wonderful with everyone supporting him for as long as possible.

Remarkably, Gene never lost his ability to relate to his students even, as he says, absent the Boston accent; using a communication device. Connolly Tough became the rallying cry as Gene struggled with this horrific disease in front of everyone, but with a degree of dignity as his life slowly slipped away; adding a little humor into the mix here and there as he viewed “every day as a gift.”

Gene Connolly had a passion for education and helping other.

Documentary filmmaker Dan Habib produced a movie called “Mr. Connolly Has ALS.” The documentary depicts everything Gene became legendary for; his humor, respect for people, and his larger than life personality even under such dire circumstances. More importantly, it opens people’s eyes to what it feels like to become disabled, and what it is like to cope with this disease in such a public way.

Gene suffered, but through his agony, it drew a community and family closer together, a small consolidation at such a high price. Gene’s lasting legacy is a monument to the person that Concord High School, and our family will always cherish; his inspirational struggle is something we should all learn from; someone that showed us even at the dawn of your life, a little humor, and understanding are still possible.

Hopefully, we will eradicate ALS altogether. Until that time, let’s take a moment to spread the word (Ice Bucket Challenge anyone?) and pray we can find a cure; we owe it to good people like my uncle, Gene. You can donate here to help end ALS for good.

I love you uncle Gene; rest in peace.

Matthew Fecteau
Matt Fecteau of Pawtucket, Rhode Island is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and an Iraq War veteran. Send him email at Matthew.Fecteau@gmail.com