By the time my 4th and final quarter at Medill rolled around, I was almost fully out of steam. The capstone project for my magazine emphasis was zapping what little energy I had left, and I was completely burnt out on the idea of being a journalist, let alone being a writer. I had my eyes set firmly on the prize of post-grad school employment here in Seattle, and coasted along in any class not related to my capstone project. One day, in my global journalism class, our instructor announced we’d be receiving a visit from James Foley, a Medill graduate and freelance international journalist who’d recently been released from 44 days in captivity, held by supporters of Gaddafi with three other Western journalists.
Right after James was kidnapped, there’d been quite a bit of chatter about him in class and a handful of vigils outside the main Medill building. Everyone had positive things to say about him. Still, I’d read “My War Gone By, I Miss It So,” and was fully expecting to meet some wizened, gimlet-eyed, adrenaline junkie who would be unimpressed by the prospect of meeting a room full of would-be journalists (and me). And that is absolutely not who wandered into our classroom, that late spring evening. James arrived with no fanfare, just sort of appeared in the doorway (a friend and I also remarked at how good looking he was, especially in spite of the ordeal he’d been through). Our instructor practically had to strong arm James into sitting in the place of honor at the head of our communal table. For the next hour and change, James told us stories of his work before Medill, at Medill, and after Medill. He detailed his time in captivity in Libya, showing us the diary he’d kept by writing on the insides of discarded cigarettes boxes. He answered all of our silly questions, and was patient and kind. He talked to us about his friend and colleague Anton Hammerl, who was killed during a gunfight when the group was captured in Libya, and the foundation that had been set up to honor his slain friend’s memory.
James handed out t-shirts that his family and friends had made during his capture—white, with a blue graffiti design and the words “Free Foley” scrawled across the front and “freefoley.org” printed on the back. The website had been transformed into a portal in memory of Anton Hammerl, including fundraising efforts to support Hammerl’s family, and he encouraged us to wear the shirts and spread awareness. After class, we all headed to a restaurant in Evanston and had dinner, and I was struck at his easy manner given what he had endured less than a month before. A couple days after he visited our class, James wrote an email to our class to say thank you–which was remarkable in and of itself. His generosity of spirit and passion for his profession—not as an adrenaline junkie as so many war correspondents are said to be, but as someone who believed what he was doing was a service that society needed was evident, and he was everything you’d hope to find in a journalist who specialized in conflict reporting. I lack the mettle and fortitude necessary to be a war correspondent, but his talk reminded me of the power of the written word, and though it took a different route than either of my newswriting instructors would have liked (sorry, Steve, Melissa, and Susan), I’m still writing.
After graduation, I moved back to Seattle, and somehow, amongst all the Northwestern gear I’d collected, I still had the Free Foley shirt. Last summer, while packing for a trip to California, I’d been reminded that James had been captured again, and decided to bring the Free Foley shirt with me to wear on long walks around the cities I was visiting, my own one woman vigil. So, when the news of his brutal murder at the hands of ISIS appeared in my Twitter feed, the shirt was with me, serving as a devastating totem of what was lost at the hands of vicious terrorists. Because I never, ever delete email from my gmail account, I immediately searched through my mail to find the thank you note James wrote after he visited our class. His words were directed at us, but they apply to him as well.
“Your generosity and inquisitiveness and of course passion, were inspiring beyond a typical sharing experience for me. It’s exciting just to think of what truths you can share with the world. It’s yours to tell.”
Rest in Peace, James. And thank you for helping to tell the stories and truths that needed to be told.
To learn more about James Foley’s life and legacy, visit the James W. Foley Foundation.