I am gleaning that some Sikh communities around the world are reading this blog and I hope this article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel helps some of them. All of us face tragedy in our lives, whether it is a parent’s death or a sick child. The intensity of murder in one’s life makes you answer questions you otherwise would avoid. Good things can happen to good people. They don’t always happen this way. The time after Mary’s death was total darkness for me. I formed the Violence Against Women coalition and my friends in the Junior League of Minneapolis pulled me through it. Twenty years later, we learned with Tom’s brain cancer that the good people of Madison could help us through that unfathomably painful time. I hope to help others who face such pain and darkness by sharing this article. It does get better. Best, Ellen
Reader knows firsthand of family strength in wake of tragedy
Ellen Foley knows the answer to my question. She has lived the answer to my question.
After the Sikh temple shootings, I wrote in a column that I wondered how the families of the dead would find the strength to go on.
“You never forget. You are never the same,” Ellen’s email to me began. “The first year you have a dark time. You wonder why people in restaurants laugh, and how people have the energy to buy groceries. After the dark time, you find you are alone. People have moved on to the next tragedy, someone’s cancer or a baby born with disabilities. They grow tired of your story. They want you to be OK.”
Ellen grew up in Wauwatosa, one of six girls and a boy born to Thomas J. and Joan Murphy Foley. They were one of those big Catholic families at St. Jude’s parish. Ellen was close in spirit and in age to her sister, Mary.
After graduating from Marquette University with a nursing degree, Mary went on to get two master’s degrees, and she eventually took a job directing corporate health care programs at Honeywell in Minneapolis. Ellen was nearby, working as a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“After a year, the media calls you for an anniversary story. You relive it all again. The dark time comes back. You work through it. Sometimes you get divorced or you move away from the town you love to get distance from memories. Soon you reach a point in which you tell your deceased family member that you must move on. You have to raise your children. You are sorry that you have to let the grief slide. You have to make money to pay the rent. They forgive you from beyond.”
On June 12, 1988, 34-year-old Mary Foley had gone to the office, even though it was a Sunday. That afternoon, as she returned to her car in the company parking ramp, Mary was attacked. A man, a stranger, strangled her until she lay dead on the concrete floor.
Eleven days passed before police arrested David Anthony Thomas, 26. It turned out he had been released from prison a month earlier. He had a history of burglary and rapes.
“Every year, a scintilla of grief melts off the darkness. By year 10, you can go a morning without thinking about your loss. You can laugh again. You remember your loved one fondly. You wonder what she would be doing now. Would she be helping you make applesauce, or would she be driving a red Corvette in Malibu?”
Memorial services for Mary Catherine Foley were held in St. Paul, where she had been living, and in Wauwatosa. Her father, a surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee, said during a service that she had mentors throughout her life, and he had come to consider her to be his mentor. “I was terribly proud of this wonderful woman,” he said.
He died in 2003 at age 79. Mary’s mother died in 1998. She was 69.
“Your parents never get over it. They have a resolved sadness that never leaves their eyes. They can smell the soft newborn hands, the sight of the first careening tricycle ride and the feel of baby-fine hair curled through their fingers. They can remember the endless hugs and conversations. Every holiday becomes a time for them to feel emptiness, remorse, guilt that they hadn’t saved their child from horror.”
Mary’s killer was convicted in September 1988 after pleading guilty to first-degree murder in Hennepin County Court. He told police he killed Mary because she fought back as he assaulted her. A judge sentenced him to life in prison. Twenty more years were tacked on to the sentence because Thomas had sexually assaulted seven other women.
There were assurances at the time that Thomas would never go free, so Mary’s family was surprised when they were notified he was up for a parole hearing this year. That release was denied, but he is scheduled for another hearing in five years.
“It becomes, in the end, day-by-day living. You know the Serenity Prayer by heart. You can only remain sane after something like this by trying to find something, anything every day that affirms that good things happen to good people. And good reporters happen to good people. I hope you will remember this when the first year anniversary comes up. The Sikh temple survivors will need you to help our community remember in a respectful way the stories of those who have been lost.”
At the time Mary was killed, the security equipment at the parking ramp was not working or had been turned off. The Foley family filed a lawsuit against the company, but it was thrown out when the state’s high court ruled Mary was covered by worker’s comp.
Ellen worked at other newspapers and was editor of the Wisconsin State Journal until resigning in 2008 to help care for her husband, Tom, after he got cancer. Today, she is president of Foley Media Group, a strategic communications firm in Madison, where she lives.
“I do not think of how Mary died when I remember her. I see her smile, hear her laugh, chuckle at her stubbornness. She is wearing pajamas and aping for the camera. She is holding my newborn daughter and calling Kait her own. Her stamina cloaks me every June 12, the day she was killed.
“This is how we do it.”
Call Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org