Charles Foley, underappreciated stalwart: 1927-2017

As soon as my mother told me she’d seen Chuck Foley’s obituary on Monday, I had a couple of immediate thoughts: one, I didn’t realize Mr. Foley was already over 60 when I graduated from CHS, and two, only with the benefit of adult hindsight had I come to understand the composure and skill with which he had handled a couple of things no one could have seen coming. This article in yesterday’s focuses on the latter.

When the police wound up shooting to death a student who had recently dropped out during my first-period sophomore English class (Mr. Fenton, room 201 or 202; I think we were reading Silas Marner at the time, and if not that, Great Expectations) it was a genuinely shocking event. Understand that in 1985, the incidence of kids bringing guns to school, with or without lethal consequences, was practically zero. And it wasn’t the kind of thing that happened in a relatively affluent, low-crime place like Concord.

But this was just the set-up jab for the knockout punch the following month, when the Space Shuttle Challenger was torn apart less than two minutes into its launch, killing a CHS teacher named Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts. This was never going to be anything less than a heart-rending national tragedy, but the timing really could not have been more gruesome. With the Internet still almost a decade away and cable news in its infancy, things like school shootings took a lot longer for their communities to process. There was no flood of electronic well-wishes from around the world that were quickly swamped by some other catastrophe; there were no talking heads scoring such events against similar ones in other places. Horrible things shambled into the shadows on their own time.

So really, talk within the school had barely quieted in the post-holiday late-January lull when Concord High once again made national news for desperately unwanted reasons.

I had virtually no personal interaction with Mr. Foley in my three years at the school (CHS is a four-year institution now, as “junior high” is largely a thing of Americas’ educational past) although I do remember him erroneously congratulating me for winning a state championship in track (I had finished second and he was probably confusing me with Chris Basha). But he had a hard job; all principals do. If being a teacher, something I did for a while, means being occasionally being singed with a match, being a principal is more like having a couple of arcwelder’s torches held a short distance from your face at all times. It’s a profession that cannot possibly be very rewarding in real time on a regular basis.

Mr. Foley was a short, bespectacled, harried-looking guy, and people sometimes called him Mr. Magoo behind his back. But like his assistants (Mark Roth and Mike Garrett), he was generally well liked. Warm eulogies are a facile thing, but this passage resounds with absolute accuracy:

“It’s the time he showed his true colors, during the Challenger event,” Bofinger said. ‘”He was amazing. He pulled the school together. We were descended upon by the press like you wouldn’t believe it, and he just told everybody to get out and leave Concord High, and he protected the kids, protected the staff, protected all of us. He was really strong through that whole event.”

I remember very well the surreal and dismal sight not only of other students crying in the immediate wake of the Challenger disaster, but also many of the teachers. Before everyone could be dismissed and loaded on buses, everyone was meandering through the hallways looking very much lost and in shock, which was precisely the case. Save for the lack of physical wounds, I don’t think the atmosphere of the school would have been much different in those minutes if an actual bomb had struck one of the building’s wings. But Mr. Foley took care of what he could, not only on that Tuesday but when we returned to school six days later.

I’m glad he enjoyed a long and apparently prosperous post-CHS life on the Massachusetts coast.