Over one-hundred members of the Northwestern and Evanston community gathered at 4 p.m. this Thursday to honor the life of Medill alumnus James Foley at a memorial service held in Alice Millar Chapel & Religious Center.
In November 2012, Foley was abducted in northwestern Syria while covering the nation’s civil war as a freelance reporter. He was beheaded by Sunni extremist group ISIS on Aug. 19, 2014 in a video that was seen and mourned around the world.
A string quartet played in the background as attendees entered the chapel during the minutes leading up to the memorial. Foley’s peers and professors during his time as a graduate student at Medill, as well as current students and members of the community, joined members of Foley’s family to commemorate his life and work as a journalist dedicated to reporting on the conflicts plaguing the Middle East.
University Chaplain Reverend Timothy S. Stevens introduced Professor Ellen Shearer, Foley’s professor during his time in Washington, who spoke about her experiences working with Foley as she watched his career develop.
“Jim grew into his courage, I think, but his passion for reporting was there from the start of his graduate program, if not before,” Shearer said. “I certainly saw it when he was a student of mine in Washington.”
Even after graduating from Medill, Foley still kept close ties with the university and his professors. “He Skyped with our global journalism students while he was embedded in Afghanistan in November 2010,” Shearer said.
Foley also spoke to students about his 44-day imprisonment in Libya, cautioning students to always focus on risks and discussing what he felt he could have done differently to avoid capture.
“I thought this was very brave of him to say that to students. The students were very engrossed in his talk.” Foley's classmate, Rachel Zahorsky (MSJ 2007), was moved by Shearer’s speech. “I was in the DC Program with Ellen, so a lot of the stories she told — I was there for them. I knew them,” she stated during the memorial’s reception in Parkes Hall. “I thought she did a really good job at making it very personal, but also expanding that it’s so much bigger. He was so much bigger. All of this is so much bigger than the life and death of one individual. I thought that that was really important to remember, and I hope that people do.”
Medill Board of Advisors member Dick Stolley announced Foley’s reception of the Medill Medal for Courage, to be presented at an official ceremony on Dec. 3. The award’s purpose is to recognize the “best display of physical, moral, financial and ethical courage in the pursuit of a story or series of stories,” Stolley said. Stolley emphasized the physical courage of Foley’s reporting in the Middle East, the domestic relation of Foley to the Northwestern campus, and the historical connection between the Medill family and its relation to war as the major reasons for Foley’s receivement of the award.
“Jim Foley showed great courage, as the world knows, but there was an added element to it, and that was the consistence of returning to the conflicts in the Middle East, the determination to let the world know what was happening there and report the truth,” Stolley said. “Because Jim will not be with us then, I think we need to consider his impact not just on the medal and its history, but on ourselves.”
Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, spoke about her son’s passion for journalism and reporting the truth, as well as his time at Medill.
“It finally was a place where he could combine his passion for writing with his passion for people who don’t have a voice,” she said. Diane Foley continued to speak about the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. The foundation’s primary goals are to provide resources and support for U.S. hostages and their families, support for conflict reporters and promote the advancement of youth education.
“We are very proud of Jim. Very thankful for the gift that Jim was to all of us, certainly. We pray that other young journalists will be inspired to be people of courage and people who dare to report the truth because our democracy depends on them,” she said.
Foley received his masters in journalism from Medill in 2008. He graduated from Marquette University with a Bachelor Degree in History in 1996 and completed the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2003. Between 1996 and 1999 Foley worked with Teach for America in a low-income elementary school in Phoenix. He began his career in international journalism in 2009, covering stories in Baghdad. Foley would later report from the front lines of Afghanistan and finally Libya, where he was detained.
The Chaplain and Director of Northwestern’s Sheil Catholic Center, Fr. Kevin Feeney, was the memorial’s final speaker. He reflected on the loss and legacy of James Foley, who was Catholic. “He is deeply missed,” Feeney said. “One thing he teaches us is to show things to your students. A good teacher helps his or her students to see. Jim brought light into places of darkness.”