John O’Connor Conway. July 26, 1911 – February 2, 1994
A Celebration of Life by John T. Sullivan, Jr., Esq.
The other night, I sat down at the computer to jot down some thoughts to share with all of you about John, and I used this brand new whizbang compact disc research tool called Microsoft bookshelf to help me. On one compact disk, it has the entire contents of several research volumes, including an Encyclopedia, Bartlett’s Quotations, Roget’s Thesaurus, the Oxford dictionary, and a few other books, all available at a keystroke or the click of a mouse, and it even has a feature where you can search all of those books at once by topic by combining words and phrases (kind of like westlaw) and then it lists all the quotes or statements found. So I tried it out and I typed in the words politics and gentleman, and the lights flashed and you could hear the computer searching, then a box appeared on the screen that said “No topics found in that combination.” And I thought, well, I must have asked the question wrong, so I tried it again, only this time I typed Politics /p (which means near or in the same paragraph) gentleman, and it whirred and spun and then the box popped up “No Topics found in that combination.” Then it hit me. In all of those learned volumes there wasn’t one quote, or one example that combined those two concepts. Politics and Gentleman. It’s almost as if the two words were mutually exclusive! So, to get a definition I had to separate the two words, and search for their meaning individually.
The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “gentleman” this way “A polite, gracious, or considerate man with high standards of propriety or correct behavior”. It also defines politics as “the strife of interests, masquerading as a contest of principle, the study of who gets what, why, when, where, and how. No wonder the computer couldn’t connect the two concepts. But where the computer failed, John O’Connor Conway succeeded, and he was surely one in a million. John was a very rare breed of human being indeed who could combine politics with being a gentleman. In fact, he was the very embodiment, the personification, of those two concepts and he combined them with dignity, quiet compassion, humor, tact and resourcefulness in a way that some say only a true Irish politician can do.
The last book John gave me to read was called Man of the House by Tip O’Neil, and although John was a bit more reserved and not quite as gregarious as Tip O’Neil, these two men shared many of the same qualities which, in the eyes of many, made them both very special indeed.
As I’m sure most of you know, John loved to hear stories and to tell them himself, and he particularly enjoyed telling about his younger days as a student at Harvard, when he was a frequent visitor at the home of famed Boston Mayor, and politico, James Michael Curley. John would tell of being at their home for Breakfast after Sunday Mass, and how the father had to get up from the table and excuse himself to take care of some business Out in the hallway, and there would be a lineup in the hallway of common folk who would be ushered in, one by one, to beseech Mayor Curley about something or other they wanted, and he would speak to each of the favor seekers, and return to the breakfast table and continue the conversation as if it were an ordinary occurrence to have half the city of Boston lined up out in the hallway each Sunday morning, and in fact it was the norm for the Curley family.
In later years, that youthful experience would serve him well as Mayor and as a Judge, when he was often compelled at public meetings or in the courtroom to sit as an anchor in the middle of the malestrom around him, and he was able to do so without flinching, or in any way seeming ill at ease. It went with the territory.
I remember the first time I met John Conway, I was a freshmen in high school and I had written a letter to the Editor, criticizing the Mayor about something or other, and he called me up and asked me to come and see him. As I was ushered into his office to see him, I remember thinking how tall and distinguished and dignified a man he appeared, and how small and insignificant I felt, but after a few minutes of conversation with him, that feeling went away, and I realized that he was really listening to what I had to say, and he made me feel important, and you know, as the years went by and I grew taller, and more confident in myself, somehow, John Conway never seemed to shrink in stature. He always seemed larger than life. He remained for me just as tall, serene, composed, confident, and impressive a man as he was when I first met him. He never lost that dignified aura of importance, but he always maintained his very real sense of compassion and caring for those in life less fortunate than he, and he always took the time to listen to their concerns.
I remember one client in particular who would wait until ten minutes after five to call, knowing that Margie, John’s Secretary would be gone, and that he would answer the phone “Joohhnn…Yes Ruth, what can I do for you?” Twenty minutes later, I’d be waving goodbye to him, and he’d still be on the phone consoling Ruth about the fact that she was out of silver polish. I remember some of the characters who would stop by the office, and more often than not, instead of paying a bill, they would walk out of the office with twenty bucks in their pocket as a loan to tide them over until their check came in. I could never figure out John’s billing system. Sometimes it seemed to work in reverse.
John would be the first person to tell you that he was not the world’s leading legal scholar, but while he may not have relished delving into esoteric nuances of different legal theories, he did enjoy the art of settling cases, and at this he excelled. John Conway could compromise even the most uncompromising cases. He had a knack for bringing people together, and he did it with good humor and gentle persuasion. He’s never clobber you over the head and force you to back off, he would nudge you into a change in position before you even realized that you had retreated at all. The first time I ever went to court with John as a young lawyer, I’ll never forget. John was more adept at settling cases than trying them, and during the course of testimony, I poked him, and said, John, I think you’d better object, and he got up and said “Wait a minute here” and Pat Sullivan, who was presiding at the trial smiled and looked down on John, and said,”Mr. Conway, are you objecting?”, and John said,” No, Judge, I’m just trying to settle this case.” We all had a good laugh at that.
That s one other thing John was always fond of, a good laugh. All you had to do to get a smile on his face was to mention one name to him, three magical words…Robert Joseph McGann…and a broad grin would come over his countenance. Boy did I hear stories about McGann, and the old days at the Oswego Hotel, and some of my fondest memories of John are when he’d take me to lunch at the Hotel Pontiac, and we’d sit at the hate club’s table, and I’d get to listen to all the stories about all these prominent people who, as I would learn, all had feet of clay, to put it modestly. In later years, I think John kind of missed those old days at the hotel with the round table.
Perhaps the finest moment in John’s career came at that very hotel, when over 500 people showed up on a beautiful October night in 1976 to pay tribute to him, as a former Mayor and County Chairman, who had just been appointed Judge. The guest speaker of the evening, Governor Hugh Carey, summed it all up when he said the crowning achievement in his term of office as governor came when he had the good fortune to be able to name John O’Connor Conway to the Supreme Court bench.. When was the last time a sitting Governor came to Oswego to say anything like that? Come to think of it, when was the last time a sitting governor came to the city of Oswego at all?
In the twenty years that he Chaired the local Democratic party, John met many distinguished people and. his advice was well sought aftet…..irIe was…as cornfortaklçtlking to Senators and Congressmen as he was aldermen and legislators. He could hob knob with the hoi poloi, and play poker with the boys. He was as comfortable at a meeting in in the Hastings fire barn as he was at the Waldorf Astoria. I am very grateful that I was able to spend some time with him while he walked on this earth, and to have gleaned from him as much as I did in the way of his wise advice. Years ago I used to kid him about being so slow to react. I’d say, John, you know if they lit a fire under your chair, 45 minutes later you might say it was getting warm in here. I’d have broken the glass, called the fire department, and grabbed the fire extinguisher by then. In later years, as I matured, and gained some of John’s philosophical insight, and maybe a little bit of his wisdom, I realized that sometimes its better to sit back in your chair and wait before you do something, lest you act in haste and later regret it. It’s amazing how our perspective changes as we advance in years.
A reporter asked me yesterday if I could tell her what John Conway would have said his two greatest achievements were, and I paused for a moment, and I said, I think he’d say marrying Mary, and having Ellen. If anyone brought joy to John and kept him young, it was his wonderful and devoted wife Mary. “Meem” was always there, and somehow, she always knew what he ieeded, and how to handle things. She always kept John on his toes as well, and God obviously had some very good reasons for making John wait until the waning days of his batchelorhood to find a wife like Mary. And Ellen, how proud he was of you Ellen. You gave him moments of concern, as all daughters do, for you were never ordinary, but then again, he knew you woul’nt be, and he loved you for your individuality, your spunk and spirit, and how great you made him feel with your choice of law as a career field.
One last story. When I proposed the resolution to name the post office building in John’s honor, I kind of thought that although at the time, I wasn’t seeing completely eye to eye with the common council, that they’d support me on this one. The night the vote was taken, after the meeting, I called John at home, and I said, John, I have some good news for you and some bad news. The good news is that you are now indeed a legend in your own time, and an Oswego institution. They have named the post office building after you. The bad news is that the vote was not unanimous. John said, let me guess, Cigar? I said you got it — John Canale — but he said he really wasn’t voting against you John, he was just voting against the building. At that he let out one of his heartiest laughs I ever heard.
John Conway, we will miss you. Your family will miss you, your friends will miss you, your fellow lawyers and judges will miss you, ….. Oswego will miss you. To us you have been a husband, a father, a brother, an uncle, a mentor, a friend, a teacher, a leader, and a father figure, and you will always be my hero.
Perhaps KingJames the First of England said it best:
“As King, I can make a Lord, but only God Almighty can make a Gentleman”
So, John O’Connor Conway, as you begin your journey toward God’s eternal light,
May the lilt of Irish laughter
lighten every load
May the mist of Irish magic
Shorten every road,
May you taste the sweetest pleasures
That fortune ere bestowed,
And may all your friends remember
A Gaelic Blessing
All the favors you are owed.
May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
The rain fall soft upon your fields
And, until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.
These remarks were prepared for delivery by John T. Sullivan Jr. at the funeral of John O’Connor Conway, February 5, 1994, St. Paul’s Church, Oswego, New York.