Executed journalist James Foley remembered by former UMass colleagues for warmth. compassion

Thursday, August 21, 2014
AMHERST — James Foley, who was beheaded by Islamic State extremists, was described Wednesday by President Barack Obama as a courageous journalist. On the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Foley was recalled as a warm, outgoing, and generous man whose compassion and integrity drove him to tell the stories of those who were voiceless, even if that meant risking his life in war zones.

Foley graduated in 2003 from the Master of Fine Arts Program for Poets and Writers at UMass.

“I’m heartsick, just heartsick,” Martin Espada, a professor of poetry and a member of Foley’s thesis committee, said Wednesday. He described his former student as “a born storyteller.”

“And he was telling stories right up until the end,” said Espada, of Amherst. “He was, as we know, incredibly brave. It was all grounded in this integrity — in principal.”

Even while writing fiction at UMass, Foley’s passion for revealing injustices and supporting the underdog was obvious, according to fiction professor Noy Holland, who was also a member of his thesis committee.

“He was always tending towards journalism, non-fiction, politics,” Holland, of Heath, said Wednesday. “He saw injustices and wanted to do something about it. He was compassionate.”

It was clear that he found his calling in reporting in the middle of fierce conflicts in Libya and Syria, she said. “If there is any solace, it’s that he was doing what he believed he should be doing,” Holland added. “He was a completely beautiful person.”

Foley was freelancing in Libya in 2011 when he was abducted and held for six weeks in a prison there. Unable to keep away from the front lines, he headed back overseas to report in Syria in 2012. He was abducted on Nov. 22, 2012, and wasn’t heard from until the militant Islamic State group Tuesday released a video of his beheading, calling it a warning to the U.S. after airstrikes in northern Iraq. A native of Rochester, New Hampshire, Foley was 40.

Espada recalled learning last year from Foley’s former classmate, Benjamin Balthaser, that Foley had been abducted a second time. “I could not believe it. In spite of everything that had happened — or maybe, because of what happened — he went back. How many people would do that?” Espada asked.

When no one had heard anything from him for over 1½ years, Espada said, “We sort of anticipated the worst, but still held out hope at the same time.

“Once someone pulls a miracle, you always expect them to pull another one,” he said, but the headlines and photographs in the news Wednesday morning dashed that hope. “There was his photo.”

Espada said that while Foley was his student, they had several conversations about what career he would pursue, and journalism was never discussed.

“Every conversation centered around the idea of doing something important with his life. He lived his life to make a contribution to the world,” Espada said. “He was focused on doing the right thing, doing something that matters.”

Balthaser, now an assistant professor of English at Indiana University South Bend, said that while he was shocked to hear about the execution, it did not surprise him that Foley would risk his life to report from the most dangerous areas of the world.

“He was incredibly smart, generous and a talented writer, and he had an incredible commitment to telling the truth,” Balthaser said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

He fondly recalled when they were in the same circle of friends at the MFA program.

“When I first met him, he had an incredibly great smile and he was very easy to approach. He was outgoing and talkative,” Balthaser said. “Something about the warmth and generosity he radiated really made him stand out,” especially in the sometimes competitive program.

He said his friends were all devastated by the news, which also “brought the war home” for many who knew him.

“It seems so incredible that there is someone who you last saw in a classroom at UMass Amherst, and then you find out he was brutally murdered in Syria,” Balthaser said.

And Balthaser added that he was shocked to hear that some Americans use Foley’s murder as a reason for greater U.S. military involvement in Syria and Iraq, and “even more acts of violence and war.”

“I’m absolutely certain that Jim wouldn’t have wanted that,” he said.

After hearing the news of Foley’s death, one of his former classmates hopes to honor him with art, writing and storytelling. Elizabeth MacDuffie, editor of the quarterly Valley arts magazine “Meat for Tea,” said Wednesday that she will dedicate the next issue of the magazine to Foley and put out a call for people to submit art and writing about him. She is also planning a reading about him at the magazine’s release party Sept. 13.

She said they did not know each other well, but were friends of friends. “I knew him to be a thoughtful, caring teacher and a smiling, kind person,” she said.

“I knew him well enough to admire his courageous actions and to be devastated by his violent, untimely death,” said MacDuffie, of Easthampton. “I can only imagine the pain his family is enduring and I humbly hope that giving them an issue of the magazine celebrating the man he was helps ease their pain in some small way.”

In a statement Wednesday, a UMass spokesman said Foley’s death “brings great sorrow and grief to the university community” and offered support to his family and friends.

Espada said he cannot imagine the pain Foley’s family is feeling. “You can offer condolences ... but it’s pitifully inadequate,” he said.

“I’ve been thinking all day about how this young man had so much to offer the world. This is an unspeakable tragedy, but it’s also a life lived with meaning and passion,” Espada said. “But it brings no consolation to me.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.