James Foley Jr., 64; helped state respond to ‘suicide contagion’
After an alarming number of young people in South Boston killed themselves in the 1990s, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health was called on to stem the tide of what the department referred to as cluster suicide, or suicide contagion. James Foley was put in charge of the effort.
“Jim was the face of the DMH during that crisis,” said Clifford Robinson, deputy commissioner for mental health services. “He was the linchpin, which had everything to do with his ability to organize people and get them to work together.”
The response system Mr. Foley set in motion later served as a model for other communities where cluster suicides among teenagers occurred.
Mr. Foley, who had been a deputy area director, died of a heart attack Sept. 15 in Morton Hospital in Taunton. He was 64 and lived in Dennisport.
His 26-year career with the Department of Mental Health officially ended in 2004, but he continued to bring his enthusiasm and expertise to the agency by working as a consultant until his death.
“We went to his retirement dinner on a Thursday night, and he was back at work on Monday morning,” said his brother Leo of Franklin. “His primary focus was always helping people out.”
Originally hired as a financial administrator, Mr. Foley showed such genuine interest and compassion for the people who needed the department’s help that his role expanded over time, Robinson said.
“Jim was a superb operations manager,” he said. “He was also incredibly generous and extremely well liked.”
During the suicide crisis, Mr. Foley marshaled various agencies to investigate suicide among adolescents and to address the substance-abuse problems and poverty that were found to be its root.
After assembling a crisis response team, Robinson said, Mr. Foley arranged for hospitals to treat at-risk teenagers who were uninsured and established a “temporary, intensive outpatient clinic” in South Boston housing projects. Mr. Foley also organized meetings with elected officials and clergy members that were open to the public.
“South Boston was a very difficult community to break into at the time,” Robinson said. “Jim was an extraordinarily ethical and practical person who was committed to the population we’re here for. He was really on their side.”
James Edward Foley Jr. was born and grew up in South Boston, which was part of the reason he was so affected by the suicide crisis there, his brother said.
He graduated from St. Mary’s High School in Brookline in 1966. Soon after he started working as a court officer in Dorchester and began taking night classes at Suffolk University. He graduated in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree, and in 1978 with a master’s in public administration.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Michele Fitzmaurice, in 1972. Their mothers met while working at a drugstore and remained close friends
The couple raised their daughter in Milton, and in 2007 moved to Dennisport, where Mr. Foley renovated a cottage his parents owned.
“He was a big smiler, kind, generous, and easy-going,” his wife said. “He really believed in giving back. He was very concerned for people with mental illness, people with any illness, actually.”
Throughout his career, said Robinson, Mr. Foley was a champion of “innovative programs. His main interest was getting the job done.”
Even after he retired, he said, Mr. Foley was a regular presence at events that the Department of Mental Health sponsored for people with mental health issues.
“You could always find him standing behind the counter, serving clients at a Thanksgiving dinner, or at a Valentine’s Day dance,” Robinson said.
He called Mr. Foley “the man of a thousand small favors,” someone who once left a stack of a particular brand of notebooks on the desk of a coworker who said she liked them.
“He always knew what was important to people,” Robinson said, “and he always found little or big ways to demonstrate what he knew.”
Mr. Foley was the recipient of numerous awards for exceptional service throughout his career, and he served on the board of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health.
When he wasn’t working, he enjoyed playing golf, tackling home improvement projects, and traveling with his wife.
Most recently they went to Egypt, she said, and they had planned a trip to Greece next spring.
“He was a great traveler,” she said. “He knew more than the tour guides did, although he was too nice to ever tell them.”
Their daughter, Meghan of Scituate, said Mr. Foley was “warm and kind, a true Irish gentleman.”
“He loved his job, he loved all the people he worked with,” she said. “He was very caring to the clients he worked for, very dedicated to making sure that everyone received the proper care, and he was always kind and respectful.”
There were “hundreds of people” at his wake and funeral, “way more than I could count,” his brother said. “They just kept coming.”
In addition to his wife, daughter, and brother, Mr. Foley leaves another brother, Kevin of Dennis.
“He worked hard, and earned everything he ever got,” Leo said. “He dedicated his life to doing what he thought should be done.”
In a eulogy, Meghan said her father was “truly a great and wise teacher.”
Mr. Foley, she said, taught her “how to throw a punch, how to drive … to never take myself too seriously, and how to laugh.
“He taught me how to scrape, sand, and paint, and how to tile a kitchen backsplash. He taught me about classic rock and classic cars.”
“Upon reflection,” she said, “it may seem that these were little things, but … they were lessons in life and love, forever etched in my heart. I always knew that if I followed his example, I would be OK.”
Kathleen McKenna can be reached at email@example.com.