James Foley, exemplar of bravery to many, dies at 40
On his first day in Stephan Garnett’s journalism class at Northwestern University in 2007, James Foley listened while Garnett explained that the profession could at times be very dangerous. “You can get hurt doing this job. You can get killed doing this job. And you’d better learn to think on your feet,” Garnett told his students.
“Jim came up to me afterward and said, ‘I think I’m going to like this class,’ ” Garnett recalled Wednesday. “He was a very courageous guy, and he didn’t scare easily.”
Bravery was a trait friends had always noticed about Mr. Foley, who was abducted in November 2012 in northern Syria while reporting for the international news service GlobalPost and other agencies. “He just had this gene that didn’t know fear,” said Jeremy Osgood, a friend of Mr. Foley’s since their childhood in rural New Hampshire.
Islamic State militants released a video Tuesday showing that Mr. Foley had been beheaded in protest to US airstrikes. President Obama condemned the act as a “brutal murder” during a news conference Wednesday on Martha’s Vineyard.
In the past two decades, more than just fearlessness motivated Mr. Foley as he went from volunteering and teaching in rough neighborhoods and jails to reporting from some of the most perilous places in the world.
“He had a very strong moral center about what was right and what was wrong,” Garnett said.
“The way in which I’ll really remember him is that he was kind,” said Paul D’Amours, a Jackson, Wyo., lawyer who became friends with Mr. Foley in eighth grade. “Regardless of the circumstances or who was involved, he always acted with kindness and compassion toward others. I think it’s safe to say that the world would be a better place if there were more people like Jim Foley in it.”
During the months Mr. Foley was missing in Syria, his friend, Sarah Fang, wrote about him on the “Pass the Chalk” blog of Teach for America, a program for disadvanataged children in which both had served.
“It’s no surprise to me that he wanted to work in Syria,” she wrote in an essay posted in January 2013. “He’s always been willing to step into a zone where no one else wants to go. Jim feels that society needs reporters willing to bear witness and report back the facts of history-in-the-making. And his loyalty to his colleagues meant that he wanted to be there with them on the frontlines.”
Mr. Foley, who was 40, had endured captivity once before. On April 5, 2011, forces loyal to Moammar Khadafy detained Mr. Foley and two other journalists, and they spent 44 days in Libyan prisons. Clare Morgana Gillis, held captive with Mr. Foley, wrote about the experience in an essay posted May 1, 2013, on the Syria Deeply website.
“We shared a cell for two and a half weeks,” she wrote, “and every day he came up with lists for us to talk through. Top 10 movies. Favorite books. The fall of the Roman Empire and the rebirth of Western civilization. Which famous person would you most like to meet? What’s your life story? How does war change you? How can we be better people when we get out of here? When I was in tears after a six-hour interrogation that ended at sunrise, he observed matter-of-factly, ‘It’s their job to break you. They did it to you today, and they’ll do it to me tomorrow. Get some sleep.’ ”
The oldest of five children, James Foley was a boy when his parents, Diane and John Foley, moved to Wolfeboro, N.H., where he graduated from Kingswood Regional High School. Mr. Foley was in college when his parents moved to Rochester, N.H.
“He had two sides,” said Osgood, his friend since childhood. “He had that kind of passion to see the world and be a part of it, not hide away in a small town, and he also had that, ‘Let’s hang out and have a beer and go have fun.’ He was kind of restless when he was doing one or the other. He wanted both worlds.”
His light side “back in our high school days may have come out more often than not,” D’Amours said.
“One of the more salient memories of Jim was when he wore a baby blue tuxedo, tails and ruffles and all, to our senior prom. Mind you, this was in 1992, well beyond the time when this fashion was in style,” said D’Amours, who added that they arrived at the dance in an aqua blue convertible, top down.
Mr. Foley, he said, also was on the “Granite State Challenge” quiz show for high school contestants, broadcast by New Hampshire Public Television. While they prepped for the show, “I was always amazed by the breadth of his seemingly endless knowledge, particularly when it came to world affairs. It never surprised me that Jim chose a profession in which he continued to learn about people and their stories, and shared that knowledge with the world in hopes of alleviating human suffering.”
Following the lead of his mother, friends said, Mr. Foley also developed a strong faith, which he drew on while in captivity. One day while being held in a Tripoli jail, he heard a knock on the wall. Holding an ear close to a wall socket, he heard a captured US contractor reading from the Bible.
“In a very calm voice, he’d read me Scripture once or twice a day,” Mr. Foley told Marquette Magazine for a profile posted on its website. “Then I’d pray to stay strong. I’d pray to soften the hearts of our captors. I’d pray for God to lift the burdens we couldn’t handle. And I’d pray that our moms would know we were OK.”
In 1996, Mr. Foley graduated from Marquette University, a Jesuit school, with a bachelor’s degree in history. He also studied writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, graduating with a master’s in fine arts.
“He had started writing fiction when at UMass,” his mother told Columbia Journalism Review for a May 2013 profile of Mr. Foley, “but afterward, the more he worked with the disadvantaged in Phoenix and Chicago, which he also was passionate about, he realized that the stories he wanted to tell were real stories – stories about people’s lives – and he saw journalism as a vehicle for talking about what’s really happening in the world.”
At Marquette, Mr. Foley volunteered in a Milwaukee school. With Teach for America, he taught economically disadvantaged students in Phoenix. Later, he helped inmates learn to read and write at a boot camp run by the Cook County Sheriff’s Department in Chicago.
“Everybody, everywhere, takes a liking to Jim as soon as they meet him,” Gillis wrote in her essay. “Men like him for his good humor and tendency to address everyone as ‘bro’ or ‘homie’ or ‘dude’ after the first handshake. Women like him for his broad smile, broad shoulders, and because, well, women just like him.”
One of the first things people noticed, Garnett recalled, was that he was “a damn good-looking guy,” though he added that Mr. Foley shrugged off such attention.
Mr. Foley “was as down to earth a person as you could be,” said Philip Balboni, chief executive officer of Boston-based GlobalPost.
Turning to journalism in his 30s, Mr. Foley enrolled in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., from which he graduated with a master’s degree.
While there, he lived in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, “far from the typical white clapboard house in New Hampshire, and that’s where he wanted to be,” Garnett said. “I asked him once, ‘Why do you live there?’ He said, ‘That’s where the real people are.’ ”
Whether choosing a neighborhood in which to live or a war zone from which to report, Mr. Foley “knew the risks and was willing to take them,” Garnett said.
After graduating from Medill, Mr. Foley was an embedded reporter with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq before going to Libya.
“I’d never been to a war zone before,” Gillis wrote in her essay. “Having spent years reporting on conflict, Jim told me when to duck and when to run. If he had a sandwich, he’d offer me half; if down to one cigarette, he’d pass it back and forth. He saved my life twice before I’d known him a full month.”
Yet Mr. Foley was hardly home from captivity in Libya before he was musing about more reporting that needed to be done in other dangerous places.
“I still want to be a conflicts journalist,” he told the Globe in May 2011, upon his return, “but I realize this is life and death.”