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Paying tribute to a fallen friend

Braley: Connolly's spirit lives on when people follow the example he set of hope, love and generosity.

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Andrew Connolly.

Bruce Braley

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Posted: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 12:00 am

Most of us -- if we're lucky -- meet a handful of people in our lifetime who change the way we look at life, and the way we think about ourselves. Andrew Connolly is one of those people who changed my life.

I first met Andrew in his modest kitchen in Dubuque. I knew he'd been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. I knew his odds of beating it weren't good. I knew he had a young family, and he was concerned about what would happen to his wife, Jenny, and his son, Brody. I knew he had served in Iraq with the Iowa National Guard. What I didn't know when I walked into Andrew's kitchen that day was how he would change my life for the better.

After our first meeting in his kitchen, Andrew was in a wheelchair every day I saw him. And yet every day I saw him -- and I saw him on some tough days --

Andrew had a big smile on his face. And every day I was privileged to be around him, Andrew spent most of his time talking about his love and appreciation for Jenny and Brody, and for the amazing people who had been there for him when he needed them.

Andrew had a deep appreciation for the people of Dubuque and the difference they made in his family's life. People who had never met Andrew and Jenny showed up to work on their new home. People brought tools and material and food and smiles. And just like me, they were overwhelmed by the love, courage and optimism of this amazing family. This spirit was reflected in the sweatshirts that the Connollys handed out for the open house when their home was finished last October. Right over the heart was a small house with the names of Andrew, Jenny and Brody and the simple message, "This house was built on hope and love."

Listening to complaints is an important part of my job. If anyone had a justifiable reason to complain about the hand he'd been dealt in life, it was Andrew. Yet in all the time I was around him, I never heard him complain. Not once.

Instead, Andrew decided to live out the remainder of his days challenging us to "pay it forward" each day by looking for the good in others and making a difference in the lives of those who need us to get through tough times and get back on their feet.

My friend, Andrew Connolly, will be buried today. You won't read about it in the New York Times or the Washington Post, or hear about it on CNN, or Fox or MSNBC. When my father died 30 years ago, one of the things that comforted me was this saying: "To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die." That is the lesson of Andrew's life.

We owe it to him to remember the example he set for us in the way he lived his life. Every time we "pay it forward" by performing a random act of kindness for someone else -- without expecting anything in return -- a little piece of Andrew lives on in our hearts. I can't imagine a more powerful legacy.

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