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Popular Jesuit Kevin Connell refuses to let a stroke keep him down

The Rev. Kevin Connell, right, talks with seniors Kensington Nulff, left, and Anna Metzger, center, during a study time in the library at Gonzaga Prep. Over two years after suffering a stroke, the long-time Gprep principal is back on campus supervising study halls and helping in other ways. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Rev. Kevin Connell, right, talks with seniors Kensington Nulff, left, and Anna Metzger, center, during a study time in the library at Gonzaga Prep. Over two years after suffering a stroke, the long-time Gprep principal is back on campus supervising study halls and helping in other ways. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

With a cane for support, the Rev. Kevin Connell walks through a crowded hallway at Gonzaga Prep. He says many of the students’ names in greeting.

“Father Connell,” the teenagers respond as they pass. He moves ahead forcefully but with a slight limp on his left side. His theater-trained voice has strength.

This fall, the 54-year-old Connell returned to help regularly at G-Prep, four years after he left as principal and just over two years since suffering a major stroke in Portland.

“I stopped physical therapy just a couple of weeks ago,” Connell said while seated in the library Sept. 27. He first came back to Spokane in late spring 2015 during his rehabilitation care.

“I proctor a couple of the study halls. I help out a bit in the library. Just being here and being active at school feels very therapeutic, negotiating hallways full of teenagers. The students are very careful of me and they’re very helpful.”

“No one is left here from when I was here; they’ve all graduated,” Connell added. He also taught at the high school during the 1990s.

Connell said he continues to work on improving his mobility and still can’t lift his left arm above the shoulder, but he’s made progress. He can get around without the cane, but he uses it for added balance. “I have to wear a brace on my lower left ankle, or my ankle collapses.”

Along with attending G-Prep’s home games, he’s officiated at the school’s weekly Mass. A longtime theater actor and director, he also will assist a bit with school’s production of “The Sound of Music” and for an upcoming theater show at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic School.

Connell left Spokane in July 2012 to teach full time at Portland’s Jesuit High School. Nearly two years later, in March 2014, he collapsed in his residence after a performance as Lear in “King Lear.”

He recalls beforehand feeling exhausted. He thought it was from the physical demands of the play and his teaching schedule.

“I just remember losing consciousness,” said Connell. He had an ischemic stroke from blockage of a blood vessel supplying the brain.

Connell thinks he spent about a week in ICU at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland. He eventually received care at the Providence Acute Rehab Center.

“The day after it happened, I couldn’t move my left leg at all,” he said. “I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t walk.”

At the hospital, physicians focused first on helping him regain movement in his left leg and then walking, he said. He now walks as much as possible around the G-Prep campus.

“I look like Lon Chaney Jr. in ‘The Mummy’s Curse,’ but I can get around,” Connell added.

“The muscles aren’t getting the messages they need to. The stroke was on the right side of the brain, so the left side of the body was affected. I have some movement in my left shoulder but not really in my left arm or hand.” Fortunately, he’s right-handed.

Connell is well-known in Spokane from his G-Prep years and also his theater work. He directed or performed in many regional plays, including at G-Prep, Gonzaga University, and Spokane Civic Theatre.

He even appeared in two movies with scenes filmed in the Spokane area. Connell portrayed a villain for a Lifetime channel Christmas special called “The Family Holiday,” and a live action role player (LARP) king in the horror comedy “Knights of Badassdom.”

Connell said therapists have told him his theater work likely helped with memory and speech recovery. He had physical therapy sessions in Portland, and later at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane, that included some vocal therapy.

“That was one of the things they tried to evaluate, the state of my short-term and long-term memory,” Connell said. “They told me that my memory seems to be very strong. Some have said that might be as a result of doing the acting, like memorizing 800 lines of ‘King Lear.’ ”

“Today in the library here we were talking about memorizing. I was still able to recite one scene from ‘Merchant of Venice’ I learned during high school.” He then quoted a lengthy speech by the character Shylock from memory.

In January, he had a small acting role as an evil priest in Gonzaga University’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

“I don’t think I’ve had any trouble with diction,” Connell said. “It’s been the actual strength of the voice. I’ve been working on that.”

When Connell returned to Spokane, he at first lived under skilled nursing care at a Jesuit residence on the GU campus. In August, he moved into the Manresa residence at G-Prep, said school president Al Faulkner.

“Kevin loves high school,” Faulkner said. “He gets to know students. He goes to volleyball matches and football games. Two weeks ago, he presided at our Thursday weekly liturgy and gave the homily, so he is doing much better.

“He still has challenges; he had a massive stroke, but he is making huge progress. He’s one of the brightest Jesuits I’ve ever met.”

Peg Haun-McEwen, the school’s dean of students, worked with Connell during his six years as principal from 2006-2012. She said G-Prep’s community reeled with concern after news of his stroke.

“Our hearts were just with him at that time,” she said. “It was hard to believe for someone so powerful with his voice and his actions – if you saw him act on the stage or in his interactions around the school – he’s a very present person.

“One of our biggest concerns for him was what his recovery was going to be like and what that would mean to him as someone with such a big physical and vocal presence.”

However, Haun-McEwen said, Connell has inspired those around him as he slowly progresses, while remaining intentional about connections with students. He also has kept what she calls his wicked sense of humor, describing a situation in a different, often funny way.

“He’s just sharp and quick, and he gets to the core of it,” she said. “You can see that even now; he still has it. He can still command the students’ attention even though his voice and his physical condition aren’t as strong as they used to be.”

Connell doesn’t discount that humor has stayed with him.

“You can’t survive 30 years in a high school without a sense of humor,” he said.

At G-Prep, he taught some English and Greek classes, and in Portland, sophomore and senior English.

Love of Shakespeare

Connell’s first exposure to Shakespeare came in his high school years at Bellarmine Prep in San Jose, California.

“I just fell in love with the language,” he said. Ever since, he’s acted in or directed multiple productions of the Bard’s work. “I have a lot of experience acting Shakespeare.”

He directed “Romeo and Juliet” at Gonzaga University, and an outdoor performance at G-Prep of “Taming of the Shrew” with university student actors. Connell played the father of Kate.

“Years ago, back in the 1990s, I directed ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ with Gonzaga Prep students, including Steve Gleason,” he said.

Born in Butte, Connell grew up in a Catholic family that later moved to California. He was ordained a priest at St. Aloysius in 1995.

He graduated from Gonzaga University with degrees in philosophy and English. During the 1980s, as he studied for his master’s degree in divinity at Boston College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he did plays with Harvard undergraduates and some work with the school’s fencing team to prepare for a role in “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

“I’ve played Macbeth,” he said. “A lot of those roles require you theatrically to go after someone with a broadsword, and I used to be pretty good at that.”

During his education career, he helped open St. Andrew Nativity School, a Jesuit middle school for low-income children in Portland, where he was president and principal. He also taught English and served as vice principal for student life at Portland Jesuit High.

Physical recovery

Connell previously ran to keep in shape and once completed the Spokane Marathon. He’s working to regain some of that athleticism.

He plans to continue doing exercises from his physical therapy sessions and to walk regularly.

“I’m hoping still to get back full mobility to at least ride a bike, and swim, and run again,” he said. “Those are things I want to achieve.”

“I’ve not given up. I try to make sure every day I get out and walk a good bit.”

He enjoys participating in G-Prep’s weekly Mass. And he’s also on the lookout to be in another play.

“Our chapel is now standing room only for those Masses,” he said. “I’m not as smooth at saying Mass as before, so being able to do it in a very forgiving environment is very helpful.”

Haun-McEwen doesn’t doubt Connell will continue to make gains and to inspire those around him.

“He works hard to be as strong as he ever has been,” she said. “I’m humbled at how hard he works to be present. I see that and think if he can do that, I should be able to know the kids’ names and be present and connected with the kids.”

“I believe he’s going to get stronger and stronger because he wants to. After Mass, he always thanks the congregation for their patience. We’re so glad to have him there. Everyone’s right there with him.”

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