Making Mr. Connolly

Spiritual Cinema Circle

Dan Habib is an award-winning filmmaker at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability, and he is currently working on a new documentary, Intelligent Lives, which examines our society’s perceptions of

About a year ago, I watched my son Samuel have a conversation with his Concord High School principal, Gene Connolly. But neither spoke verbally. They both used communication devices—Samuel because of his cerebral palsy and Connolly because he had developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and lost his ability to speak.

For 14 years, Connolly was always on the go. Whether in the press box at football games or greeting students at the start of every school day, he was an active, beloved, engaged leader who left a lasting impression on thousands of students who attended Concord High School. But in 2014 the gregarious Connolly was diagnosed with ALS, a neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells and leads to progressive muscle weakness and paralysis. He joined approximately 12,000 other Americans living with ALS, which typically results in death within two to five years.

Since the onset of his illness, Connolly has shown tremendous persistence and humor in the face of this degenerative disease. Connolly credits the school and the greater Concord community as a source of unfailing support and understanding as his illness progressed, enabling him to continue to lead the school for two years while also raising awareness about the disease locally, statewide, and nationally. Connolly retired in June 2016, but the positivity and candor that he demonstrated as he lost the ability to talk and walk will be his most profound legacy.

The documentary is built around interviews between students and Connolly. I asked the entire student body to participate in an interview process similar to the StoryCorps series on public radio, but on video. Students submitted thousands of questions, which were narrowed down to 50.

The film also includes my documentary footage of Connolly’s life in and out of Concord High School over the past year, as well as archival footage of Connolly’s key public activities as principal from the past 14 years. Samuel, now 18 and a senior at Concord High School, is also featured in the film, and served as a story consultant.

The student questions were threaded throughout the documentary to explore the themes that Connolly’s ALS catalyzed in the community: how to live life fully, develop resilience, show love freely, and identify priorities; what it feels like to acquire a disability; how people perceive individuals with disabilities; and how to approach an inevitable death with honesty and dignity.

As Gene said in one of our interviews, “People don’t understand the disease. They think the disease has affected my cognitive abilities. While I look different, inside I am the same person. It can be frustrating and exhausting. I have a newfound respect for people with disabilities.”

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