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Remembering Journalist James Foley

Northwestern mourns the death of Medill alumnus who risked his life to cover Middle East conflicts

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Aug. 20.

James Foley was determined to tell the stories of people suffering in war-ravaged countries, and he risked his life to cover conflicts in the Middle East.

But Foley, a journalist trained at Northwestern University who willingly went to countries beset by trauma, was also a buoyant colleague known for his generosity and good humor, those who knew him said Wednesday. People came to like him quickly, and his nature likely endeared him to those he covered as a journalist, friends said.

"(He) put a smile on your face every time you saw him," said Ryan Gallagher, who said he shared a house with Foley when they were both studying in Northwestern's program. "He called you 'brother' and he meant it."

Foley was beheaded by Islamic militants, shown in a video posted online Tuesday and authenticated Wednesday by U.S. authorities. The fate of the 40-year-old reporter and photojournalist had been in question since he went missing in Syria on Thanksgiving 2012 while working for the Boston-based news website GlobalPost.

After nearly two years of uncertainty, friends and family remembered Foley as a committed journalist who went to Syria even after being held captive in Libya for 44 days in 2011.

"He just had deep courage — courage we're struggling to summon," his mother, Diane Foley, said at a tearful news conference Wednesday outside their home in Rochester, N.H. "He always cared about people who were suffering, and that's why he went back."

A New Hampshire native and the oldest of five siblings from a devout Roman Catholic family, Foley did his undergraduate studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee, graduating in 1996, according to the university. Michael Keating, now an attorney who lives in suburban Glenview, said he was close friends with Foley at Marquette, and he remembered him as intellectually curious and well-read.

"Even as a young man, he articulated a desire to first understand the world he lived in and to be an agent for change to make the world a better place," Keating said.

Foley worked as a teacher after graduating from Marquette, various media have reported, but in his 30s he came to Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism to study for a master's degree. While going to Northwestern, he also worked as a language arts teacher at the Cook County sheriff's boot camp, an alternative to prison, officials said. Foley was fluent in Spanish and believed in using education to reduce recidivism, sheriff's officials said.

"Jim dedicated his life to serving others and effecting change," Sheriff Tom Dart said in a statement. "We thank him from the bottom of our hearts for his service and for all he did while working with us and for all he did to shine a light on the injustices and suffering in the world."

At Northwestern, Foley impressed teachers and fellow students with his determination to tell the stories of sometimes-unseen people. He was committed to serious journalism but, in his personal life, he was also known for his easy manner, his appreciation of hip-hop music and his tendency to address even new acquaintances as "dude" or "bro."

"He was not a difficult guy to get to know. ... I think that's one of the things that made him so effective as a journalist," said Stephan Garnett, who taught him in an intensive introductory course at Medill.

After graduating from Medill in 2008, Foley covered Iraq for the northwest Indiana-based Post-Tribune, according to archival stories from that paper. He would eventually also cover conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

But he wasn't "some cowboy," said Medill professor Ellen Shearer, who taught him during his time with the journalism school's program in Washington, D.C. He was prepared for conflict journalism, and he produced vivid images of battle, she said.

"He wanted to show the impact of conflict not from the perspective of geopolitics or world leaders but from the perspective of the people being killed, being affected," she said.

Foley's first stint in captivity came when he was jailed in Libya for more than a month in 2011. After his release, Foley returned to Medill and spoke to students about how his religious faith and his relationships with the other captives carried him through.

"Being with people and praying with people, that's the only thing that mattered," he said in the talk, which was video-recorded. "You're completely humbled ... completely powerless. All you can do is pray to whatever you believe. And pray with people."

To keep his mind occupied, Foley recited the rosary, he said.
"... It's a really long prayer. I didn't have it right but I was just trying to do it," he said.

When he was in Afghanistan, Foley told the students, he questioned whether he was reporting all he could about the conflict, given that he was working behind the protection of soldiers. He also discussed how seeing violence affected him.

"When you see something really violent, it does a strange thing to you. It doesn't always repel you. Sometimes ... it draws you closer. Feeling that you survived something. It's a strange sort of force that you are drawn back to," he said.

Garnett, the Northwestern instructor, said he spoke with Foley then, and the former student wrapped him in an enthusiastic hug. The instructor said he asked his former student if he planned to return to foreign conflict coverage, and Foley said, "Of course."

Foley wanted nothing more than to get back in the field, a colleague said.

"You could just tell that this was a guy who — sitting at a desk was not who he was," said Katrine Dermody, 27, a friend of Foley's who worked at GlobalPost at the time. "We used to joke, 'Jim, you look like a caged animal.' He just yearned to be out on the field."

Foley went to Syria — currently regarded as the most dangerous country for journalists — and was supposed to meet fellow journalist Nicole Tung in a Turkish border town in November 2012 but didn't show up at the appointed time, she told the Columbia Journalism Review in a story published last year.

"I was starting to worry after 6, 7 p.m., when things were very quiet," Tung told the publication. "By 10, 11, I knew that something had definitely gone wrong."

Over the nearly two years of Foley's captivity after he disappeared in Syria, the Foley family has led an intensive effort to win his release. At the time of his death, they believed they were close to achieving that goal, Diane Foley said, and were hopeful after a recent trip to France and Denmark during which they tried to arrange his release.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon disclosed that the U.S. military attempted an air and ground rescue operation to free Foley and other American hostages held by Islamic State militants in Syria earlier this summer but failed to find them.

Friends held out hope until Tuesday that Foley would survive. Garnett struggled to maintain his composure as he talked about the feeling of knowing his former student had suffered in captivity before his death.

"I don't want to think about how he died," Garnett said. "But I can't stop thinking about it."

More than 100 people gathered to mourn Foley on Wednesday at a solemn service at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in the quiet New Hampshire community where he was raised.

"There is no sense to be made of senselessness; you cannot find any kind of sanity in insanity," the Rev. Paul Gousse told parishioners during his homily Wednesday morning at the Roman Catholic church. "War begets war; the only answer is in prayer."