On Thursday, Day 4 of a 50-plus-day bicycle odyssey across the United States, Derek Thomson ’16 was pedaling his way through the foothills of Yosemite National Park.
He and his brother, Dylan, had some tough hills to climb, but they were nothing, Derek said, compared to the uphill battle his high school principal and mentor, Gene Connolly, is fighting.
Connolly, principal of Concord High School in New Hampshire, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2014. In order to raise money for Connolly’s medical expenses, not all of which are covered by insurance, Derek and his brother are biking from San Francisco to Seabrook, New Hampshire, in a mission they’re calling Cycling the U.S. for ALS.
“He definitely doesn’t deserve [ALS] at all, and we wish we didn’t have to do this bike trip for him, honestly,” Derek Thomson said.
Connolly was a huge source of encouragement early in his filmmaking career, said Thomson, who graduated from Emerson earlier this month with a BA in Film Production.
In high school, Thomson would make promotional videos for sports teams and school events that would be broadcast during morning announcements. He started a weekly series called Thursday with Curt with a classmate who “was kind of crazy; he would do pretty much anything,” Thomson said. The videos were a chance for Curt to be nutty and Thomson to experiment with special effects, and Connolly was always game to help…or guest star.
One week, they decided they wanted to shoot a video in which Curt jumped off the roof of the school and into Connolly’s arms.
“Usually, you would not allow high school kids up on the roof, but we asked Mr. Connolly, ‘Hey can we do this?’ and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s go now!’” Thomson recalled.
If Connolly was supportive of Thomson’s filmmaking, he was a rabid booster of Thomson’s getting into Emerson College—especially when it looked like it wouldn’t happen.
Thomson knew Emerson was the place for him. He sent in his application, complete with a letter of recommendation from Connolly and a video reel of his work, but he wasn’t the world’s best test-taker and knew his scores and grades might make things a bit difficult for him.
So every few weeks, he would call the College and ask what else he could do to get himself a spot in the Class of 2016. He sent in more videos and more letters of recommendations, and he sent in a video letter of recommendation, from Connolly, naturally.
He was waitlisted. Twice.
After the second time, Connolly offered to make a road trip to Boston to speak with the dean about letting Thomson in.
Thomson didn’t get into Emerson that year. He went to Keene State College and eventually was able to transfer to Emerson the second semester of his sophomore year. But he never forgot how Connolly believed in him.
“He [wanted to] do everything he possibly could to get me into that school,” Thomson said.
Today, Connolly uses a motorized wheelchair and an iPad to speak. He has announced that this will be his last year at Concord High, but until the last day of school on June 17, he still shows up every day ready to work, and still greets his students in the morning like he has for the past 14 years.
“Mr. Connolly is going to work today and all we’re doing is climbing hills,” Thomson said he often thinks.
Thomson said he and his brother have been averaging 70 to 80 miles per day, and have been mostly camping out at night. Their goal is to raise $20,000 (as of this writing, they have nearly $6,300 pledged). And Thomson, an aspiring documentarian, will be making a film of their journey.
Thirty-one years ago, Thomson’s father made the same bike trek across the country: 4,500 miles, through 15 states and a chunk of Canada. Thomson said like their father, he and his brother plan to start with their back tire in the Pacific and end with their front tire in the Atlantic.
At the end, the brothers will ride through their hometown of Concord, where a group of residents will join them for the last 50 miles of the trip. At the very end, Thomson said, he hopes one more person joins them.
“Hopefully, we’ll have Mr. Connolly there and have him in front of us on that last stretch of road.”
For more information, or to donate, visit the Cycling the US for ALS website.