Skip to main content

Remembering Alumnus James Foley

Slain journalist’s life celebrated, honored with Medill Medal of Courage

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University held an emotional memorial service for intrepid reporter James Foley Thursday (Nov. 20), and the Medill School honored its slain alumnus by presenting him posthumously with its prestigious 2014 Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism.

Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, his grandmother, Olga Wright, several close friends and nearly 200 students, faculty, staff and others attended the moving memorial, marked by haunting music from a string quartet, at Alice Millar Chapel on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

Related: Medill Renames Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism in Honor of James Foley

“Jim was so proud to be admitted to Medill School here at Northwestern,” said Diane Foley. “It finally was a place for him to combine his passion for writing with his passion for people who didn’t have a voice, which began with Teach for America. So I am very grateful to Medill.” She noted that Medill and its people “have walked with us for the last two years.”

Foley, who earned his master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism in 2008, was killed on Aug. 19 by extremists in the Middle East after being held hostage and imprisoned for nearly two years. He was captured while reporting for the online publication,, in November 2012 in Syria near the border of Turkey.

“I’m very proud of Jim. There’s no way we can replace him,” Diane Foley declared in a strong, stoic voice, “but I pray that other young journalists will be inspired by his life -- to be people of courage and people who dare to report the truth. Because our democracy depends on it.

“It was something so important to Jim,” she said. “I hope people will come to value courageous journalists like him the way we value our service men and women.”

Diane and her husband John Foley have created the James W. Foley Legacy Fund ( ) to “honor what Jim stood for by focusing on three areas he was passionate about.” The Fund aims to build a resource center for families of American hostages and foster a global dialog on governmental policies in hostage crises, to support American journalists reporting from conflict zones and to promote quality educational opportunities for urban youth.

Speakers at the services talked about their remembrances of Foley, his commitment to teaching, his passion for the story and how he rarely turned down an opportunity to visit Medill or Skype with students, no matter where in the world he was at the time.

Richard Stolley (BSJ52, MSJ53) a member of the Medill Board of Advisers and senior editorial advisor of Time Inc., also spoke at the service and made a surprise announcement, revealing that Foley is being awarded the 2014 Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism.

The Medill Medal is given to the individual or team of journalists, working for a U.S.-based media outlet, who best displayed moral, ethical or physical courage in the pursuit of a story or series of stories.

Stolley said Foley met all three of those criteria and especially deserved the honor because -- after he was held hostage once before in Libya—he chose to return to the Middle East to cover conflict there. Foley’s “compulsion to tell the truth,” Stolley observed, demonstrated his extraordinary “ethical courage.” He said future honorees would have to measure up to the standard Foley set for “bravery, integrity and truth.”

Foley’s mother spoke of him in more personal and intimate terms in a series of interviews with media visitors at Medill and at the chapel. “Jim was always thinking about everyone else,” Diane Foley said. “He was a man for others.

“He was a happy curious kid who loved to go on adventures. He was always such a positive person,” she recalled of his time growing up.

“He grew to be a courageous, committed, compassionate person who cared about freedom of the press. He was very drawn to the human rights side of things. He was very concerned about people suffering, especially children,” she added. Referring to the dangers he faced as the threat of jihadists rose in the Mideast, she said he remained positive: “He felt he had to return. He had many promises to keep.”

The service was planned by University Chaplain Rev. Timothy Stevens, Chaplain and Director of Northwestern’s Sheil Catholic Center Rev. Kevin Feeney and the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. 

Medill Dean Brad Hamm was among a number of senior University officials who were also on hand. In planning the service, Hamm noted that Medill was honored to have members of Foley’s family come for the event, which he said provided “an opportunity for Medill and Northwestern and the larger community to gather in reflection about Jim's life.\"

Chaplain Stevens noted the gathering was intended to remember Foley but also “to celebrate his gift of life.”

Chaplain Feeney told the assembly that “Jim brought light into the places of darkness.”

“Medill and the world have lost one of its most compassionate and courageous souls and one of its most passionate journalists,” said Ellen Shearer, one of Foley’s teachers, William F. Thomas Professor at Medill and interim director of Medill’s Washington program.

Speaking at the service, Shearer talked about watching Foley grow as a journalist over the years, noticing his “courage and humanity,” and she even suggested he take a desk job and not go back to the front lines after his first episode of being taken hostage. “He was like a caged lion,” she added. “He was going to follow his passion.”  

A New Hampshire native, Foley worked as a teacher after attending Marquette University. He was in his 30s when he came to Medill to pursue his master’s degree. Foley is remembered by friends, family and colleagues as a fearless journalist who made friends easily and cared deeply about the marginalized in society. While studying at Northwestern, Foley worked as a language arts teacher at the Cook County’s sheriff’s boot camp, an alternative to prison.

“He focused on national security because he wanted to tell the stories of the people those policies affect -- service members, the people of the countries we send troops to and Americans who foot the bill,” Shearer said earlier.

Foley’s 2012 disappearance marked the second time he had been kidnapped. The previous year, he had been captured in Libya and held for 44 days in a Libyan prison. Just two weeks after his release, Foley visited Medill and spoke to students about his experiences in captivity and his previous reporting in Afghanistan.

“Every day I want to go back,” he told the students. “I’m drawn to the front lines.”

Back to top