The Omaha firefighter had just finished working out when the TV news teased to a breaking national story.
The Omaha criminal defense attorney had just grabbed his phone to read an urgent text from his wife.
What they saw Tuesday was shocking and hard to believe. They texted friends, got online and started searching for other news about the American journalist who had been gruesomely slain.
In a widely circulated image, there he was, their college buddy, a guy they called “Foley.”
James Foley was kneeling in the desolate, desert moonscape. His head was shaved. He was clad in orange. Behind him stood a menacing masked man. It was a chilling precursor of the savagery to come.
“I know him,” Bryan Crotzer said to other firefighters at Station 3 in South Omaha.
“What’s wrong?” Joe Howard’s assistant asked when she saw her boss begin to cry.
The two Omaha men had gone to college with Foley at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They lived in the same dorms, went to the same parties, ate chili at the same after-hours dive. They tromped downstairs for the same dorm-basement Sunday night Mass.
They were on the intimate last-name basis of college guys — especially college guys at a Catholic, Midwestern university where everyone seems to have the same first names. Lots of Bryans and Joes at Marquette. Lots of Jims.
“Hey, Crotzer. Hey, Howard,” Foley would say as they crossed Wisconsin Avenue, the Dodge Street of Milwaukee, which bisects the Jesuit university’s campus.
“Hey, Foley,” they’d say.
The two — Crotzer from Arkansas, and Howard an Air Force brat from everywhere — were drawn to the New Hampshire native the way everyone else seemed to be. Sure, he was good-looking and athletic, playing on Marquette’s club rugby team. But it was his quiet confidence, sense of humor and a humble Everyman, easygoing quality that made him so magnetic.
Foley was no showboat, no saint. He was just Foley. Nose in a book. Hand on a beer. Ready with a laugh. Curious as hell. He would ask about your day, your thoughts, your life. You’d have to pry the same out of him.
He was fun. He was interesting.
And now he was dead.
The murder of James Foley has reverberated around the globe, with many condemning the killing of a journalist and the brutality of the group claiming to have done this, the Islamic State. The act has raised questions about conflict coverage, the paying of ransoms and U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria.
Foley’s inner circle reeled but has responded with grace. His family declared it was never prouder of “our son and brother Jim” and urged the release of other journalist hostages. The president and CEO at Boston-based GlobalPost discussed the great lengths to which the news outlet had gone to seek Foley’s release, and shared a deep admiration for his work. Teach for America, which put Foley in a Phoenix classroom, singled out the man’s tenacity, spirit and “fierce dedication to give voice to the voiceless.”
Foley’s friends from Marquette, who with his family had rallied before to successfully obtain his release when he was held captive in Libya, came together again in grief. And action. They have started a journalism scholarship at Marquette in Foley’s name. The university is holding a prayer vigil for him this week. There is also a separate James W. Foley Legacy Fund to support journalists and disadvantaged youths.
I didn’t know Foley, but I felt I should have, as our paths might have crossed at Marquette, where he was a year behind me. We both did Teach for America, but I was already in Louisiana when he got his assignment for Phoenix. I remember getting a TFA bulletin about a former corps member missing in Syria. I remember spending 30 seconds thinking, “That’s terrible,” and moving on the way we do about someone or something so far away, so far removed from our daily experience that the events and people seem abstract.
Like a civil war in Syria.
Like the incomprehensible barbarism of the Islamic State that is making it very dangerous to be a woman — or anyone, for that matter, who does not adhere to its strict Islamist ideology.
These events don’t touch most of us directly. We have that luxury in middle America of turning off the switch when we reach horror capacity. Ukraine? Gaza? Ebola outbreak? Syria?
We can just shut it off.
Yet exposing this war and the suffering of the Syrian people — almost 200,000 of whom have died so far — was Jim Foley’s job.
“You can’t understand a conflict,” he told Northwestern University students in 2011, “unless you understand the people involved in that conflict.”
The best way to understand them is to go meet them.
Foley went to Syria even though it was the most dangerous country in the world for a journalist. He went there even as his friends expressed concern, and one flat-out said he shouldn’t go. He went there because nothing, not even 44 days in Libyan prisons in 2011, could keep him from telling important stories.
Conflict coverage was his calling, said one of Foley’s closest friends, a man named Thomas Durkin.
Durkin graduated from Marquette with Foley and Crotzer and Howard in 1996. They had all hung out together, but after college, they split. Crotzer and Howard stayed at Marquette for advanced degrees and then landed in Omaha, where they met their wives, bought houses and settled down.
Durkin wound up in graduate school in Idaho, then back at Marquette. He kept a close tie to Foley and kept the Omaha buddies in the loop.
Foley was a rolling stone. He joined Teach for America, taught seventh- and eighth-graders at a Phoenix school for three years and started writing. Foley then got a creative writing degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He moved to Chicago and taught literacy and writing to inmates at the Cook County boot camp.
It was there, Durkin said, that Foley was drawn to the real stories that weren’t getting told.
Foley left the boot camp for journalism grad school at Northwestern University. Then he was overseas on reporting stints. But he always stayed in touch, always seemed his same old self. Easy. Curious. Funny.
“You knew he was more worldly than you. That he knew more about what was going on,” Durkin said. “But it was the same guy I met 20 years ago at Marquette. ... He was the same kind, gentle person.”
When news of his death broke Tuesday, initial national reports described Foley sparsely, focusing on his death and the broad issues at play. A couple of Marquette alumni bulletins, including a 2011 letter from Foley, told me more.
Foley said that while at Marquette he saw himself as “a sheltered kid” in “a world that had real problems.”
In the Libyan jail, he said the rosary, counting Hail Marys on his knuckles. He found solace in fellow Libyan and Western captives and in the comfort of a single phone call home.
“I replayed that call hundreds of times in my head — my mother’s voice, the names of my friends, her knowledge of our situation, her absolute belief in the power of prayer,” Foley wrote. “She told me my friends had gathered to do anything they could to help. I knew I wasn’t alone.”
He isn’t alone now.
Many friends and strangers are thinking about him, his family and the stories he tried so hard to tell.
On Friday, I sat down with Crotzer and Howard to learn more about the life of a man whose death has been the main story. We talked about how President Barack Obama and Pope Francis called Foley’s folks. We talked about the horrible way the 40-year-old had died and about how the barbarism of his murder has got the world talking.
Crotzer wants people talking about a man devoted to others. Howard wants them talking about a man who wasn’t vengeful himself. Both want the way Foley lived to be the story.
Not the way he died.
Naturally, they were grappling with their own mix of emotions.
“Numbing sadness,” said Howard.
Crotzer choked up.
“I’m proud of Jim. Proud of what he did.”