James Foley and Daniel Johnson met shortly after each had graduated from college, when they signed up for Teach for America in Phoenix. It was the start of a close friendship that would sustain both for nearly 20 years until Aug. 19 when an Islamist group posted a video of the execution of Foley, a 40-year-old freelance journalist.
“Jim was, and is, a brother to me,” says Johnson, who adds that he cannot speak of Foley in the past tense. “At every juncture of my life I feel Jim has played a formative role.”
Indeed, he’s got photographs of Foley as an usher at his wedding, of the two camping in Western Massachusetts, and drinking beer in Chicago. Foley was godfather to Johnson’s son, Luka. Johnson was “D.J.” to Foley.
The men were in their early 20s when they joined the teaching program, working with kids in gritty south Phoenix. “I think we were closeted writers at the time we met,” Johnson says in a recent interview about Foley and their friendship. “I think the thing that connected us first was our love of books.”
Both would go on to writing careers, Foley as a fiction writer and later a journalist, Johnson as a poet. Wednesday, Johnson’s narrative poem about Foley, “In the Absence of Sparrows,” will be published by the Academy of American Poets, as part of its Poem-a-Day series (
He began the poem the first time Foley was taken hostage in Libya in 2011, but wasn’t happy with it. He started writing again after Foley was kidnapped in Syria. “I could feel Jim’s hand in it,” he says.
In the poem, Johnson describes the protests against the American invasion of Iraq that the two men participated in, some of Foley’s boyhood hijinks, and the alternating hope and despair Johnson felt when Foley was captured in Libya and later disappeared in Syria in November 2012.
‘He was . . . constantly drinking in the things around him.’
“Don’t get me wrong; we expect you back,” Johnson writes in his poem. “Skinny, feral/ coffee eyes sunken but alive, you’ve always come back, from Iraq,/ Syria, Afghanistan, even Libya after Khadafi’s forces/ captured and held you for 44 days.”
In Houston, where the friends trained for Teach for America, they’d spend their days learning how to write lesson plans and control a classroom. At night, the roommates would swap books. A few months later, when they moved to Phoenix to teach, they took writing workshops during their off-hours and made a pact to become writers.
“We read each other’s stuff,” says Johnson, 41. “I have an unfinished novel of his in my house.”
Each would ultimately find a calling in telling other people’s stories: Foley, as an intrepid reporter in the Middle East; Johnson, as founding executive director of 826 Boston, a nonprofit that helps inner-city students find their writing voices. Johnson’s Roxbury tutoring and writing center is papered with students’ photos, and he is clearly proud of their work.
He also proudly shows off a piece Foley wrote based on his experiences as a teacher, which won a prize from the Indiana Review. “It’s hilarious,” Johnson says with a broad smile.
Foley, a native of Rochester, N.H., had graduated from Marquette University and, after teaching, earned a master’s in fiction writing from UMass-Amherst. Meanwhile Johnson, who is originally from Ohio and a University of Michigan grad, had moved to Chicago, where he spent time on his own graduate degree in writing. After finishing grad school in 2003, Foley joined him there.
“Jim was really a person of great passion,” Johnson says, recalling their participation in an antiwar protest that blocked Lakeshore Drive. They loved to hike and camp, and spent a week in Cuba, getting around a US embargo by sneaking in via Canada.
When President George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, Johnson, Foley, and another friend decided to hold an “anti-inaugural ball.” First, they had a parade with bicycles and a marching band. The event took place at an art gallery, and about 300 people showed up.
“I think we were trying to tap into what people were feeling,” says Johnson, a lanky guy with a pencil tucked behind his right ear. “We were comrades. We had a tendency to celebrate and act out.”
In 2000, the men went to New York to celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends. “Sixteen inches of snow fell that night,” Johnson recalls, laughing. They went to a lounge, and Foley, who had a flair for the tacky outfit, decided to wear a red and black checkered sport coat.
Years later, at a vigil, as an inside tribute to his fallen friend, Johnson wore a belt with a scorpion encased in its buckle that he had bought with Foley in Chicago.
That snowy New Year’s Eve at the lounge would prove fateful for Johnson. A quiet sort, he repaired to the bar. Foley, an ebullient sort, jumped in with a group of women dancing, loud jacket and all. The two left the bar at 6 a.m., and Johnson would later marry one of the women he met through Foley.
“He had lost the keys to our friend’s apartment, and Ebele, a student at Columbia, offered to let us sleep on the floor in her dorm room,” says Johnson. “Jim was central to bringing us together.” The couple moved to Boston in 2005, where she, a child psychiatrist, trained at Massachusetts General Hospital.
They married in 2006 and have a daughter who just turned 4, and a 16-month-old son. They named Foley the boy’s godfather. “But he never got to meet him,” Johnson says.
In 2008, Foley earned a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, when he was 35 years old. “He’d had success with his fiction,’’ says Johnson, “but I think ultimately he wanted to see the world firsthand.”
Foley was a physically powerful presence who played rugby at Marquette, a guy’s guy who relished hiking into a canyon or embedding with US troops overseas.
His personality was big, too. “He had a jester quality about him, and I think it was a tool he’d use to entertain and distract people,” says Johnson. “But he was a very sensitive, keenly observant guy who was constantly drinking in the things around him.”
Courageous but not reckless — that’s how Johnson saw him. “I think he was wired differently,” he says. “I would have dropped my camera and run in circumstances where Jim kept on filming.”
Foley, the oldest of five children, came from a military family, with his father a veteran and three of his siblings in the service. At one time, Foley himself considered enlisting.
Instead, he took a notebook, and later a video camera, into conflict zones, and tried to explain his passion to his friend. “In a war zone, you can just turn on your camera,” he told Johnson after he returned from captivity in Libya. “With bullets flying and bombs exploding, it’s automatic news.”
But it was more than that, Johnson wrote in a note that accompanies his poem. “It was people’s stories, the stories of mechanics, oil workers, mothers, and fathers, people living in extremis that drew him to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and ultimately, Syria. A similar thread, I believe, had led Jim into that South Phoenix classroom years before.”
Foley was with South African photographer Anton Hammerl when Hammerl was shot and killed in Libya in 2011. Foley was captured and held by forces loyal to Moammar Khadafy. Later, he raised money for Hammerl’s wife and three children, says Johnson. And he raised nearly $12,000 through social media before being taken hostage in Syria — for an ambulance in Aleppo, to help carry the wounded to medical treatment.
When Foley was released in Libya, he and Johnson met for lobster rolls on the Boston waterfront. At the time, Foley had taken a desk job at GlobalPost, the Boston-based online news service that he’d reported for from the Middle East. But he hated being stuck in the office, says Johnson, who asked him not to go to Syria, his final reporting gig.
On the morning the video of Foley’s murder went up, Johnson was writing a poem: “An Open Letter to James Foley in Syria.” Foley’s family and friends had raised about $1 million in hopes of ransoming him, and in June, they gathered at a barbecue that Johnson and another friend had organized.
“There was such hope,” he says.
In continuing to write about Foley, Johnson hopes to blunt the horrific image of his last moments, kneeling in an orange jumpsuit in the desert sand, his black-clad executioner standing over him.
“Jim was always telling other people’s stories,” says Johnson. “I feel part of my life now is telling his story.”Bella English can be reached at email@example.com.