October 30, 2023, Lenox, MA – I read the citation that accompanies the award of the Silver Star to my father, for conduct during the WWII Battle of the Bulge, sometime after I had turned 70. It spoke of the “superb daring” and “extraordinary heroism” it took for him to accomplish the destruction of a bridge in a river gorge heavily defended by German artillery batteries.
After only a moments’ reflection, I was filled with the sense that he was not afraid to die, that he fully understood and was content with his role in life. It is one of life’s cruel ironies that his ended a mere eighteen years later, in the crash of his business associate’s small plane, when I was fourteen.
His army service was no secret to me – he was in his Major’s uniform at dinner the night before his business trip, as he was every Wednesday, which was the day his Army Reserve unit met. And, I’d always known about various souvenirs he’d sent home, including a German naval officer’s sword, an S.S. dagger, a large swastika, and a Nazi helmet with a gaping hole made by a bullet that had passed through some poor German soldier’s head.
What was a secret to me, however, was what he did during the war; I knew no personal details except what he answered in response to my questions. And there are only two that I remember asking: Did you have a rifle? Did you get a Purple Heart Medal?
He explained that, as an officer, he had been assigned a pistol, not a rifle, and that, no, he hadn’t received a Purple Heart Medal, because he hadn’t gotten shot. Besides those scant details, he apparently saw no need to tell his son what a great man he is.
My father was that rare man defined by his deeds and described by those who knew him; he epitomized the adage that the proper way to judge a man is not by what he says but by what he does. What he did during the war is the source of my enduring sense of patriotism, even though we’ve strayed far from our founding principles.
What he did for his adopted hometown, for my birthplace, is why I want to arrange for the perpetuation of his memory there in the time left to me.
Born in Toronto in 1915, my father’s family moved to Syracuse eight years later. He returned to Toronto to study philosophy at St. Michael’s College, then back to NY for law school at Syracuse University, where he was President of the Class of 1941. He took a job in an Oswego law firm after graduation and, eventually, formed a partnership with a law school classmate, whose own father had represented the Oswego area in Congress for twenty years.
I learned about his failed attempt to join the Navy after Pearl Harbor from another of his Oswego friends. Together, they went to the Navy enlistment office, where the friend was accepted, but he was rejected, because of his Canadian birth. Rather than take whatever time it would to convince the Navy of his American citizenship despite his place of birth, his friend told me that my father simply went next door and joined the Army!
Nine years after the exploits that merited the Silver Star, my father was sworn in as Oswego’s City Attorney, a job he held for the four years of the mayoral administration of Robert G. Iles, during which time he was instrumental in the establishment of the Port of Oswego Authority, the construction of the city’s new water system, and the building of the city’s first public housing project.
The four years of the Iles Administration, in the otherwise lean and dark years of the Eisenhower Administration, amount to Oswego’s own New Deal. The election was contested by a man who was so adamant in his aversion to public housing, that Mr. Iles had the endorsement of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
What my father accomplished in only 47 years is difficult to fathom, much less seek to emulate. Something my mother told me in my late 40s helped me gain a better understanding, though. I don’t recall the specifics of our conversation, but something led my mother to recall the time that he had told her he knew he would die young. She responded by telling him that if he died and left her all alone with his six babies, then she would never say a good word about him.
He was accurate in his intuition of an early death, but, I’m pretty certain my mother never said anything other than good words about the man with whom she made the closest thing to an ideal marriage that I’m aware of.
Among the many projects that involved him at the time of his death was the construction of a new building to house the Newman Center on the campus of the State University College at Oswego. The center was run by his close friend Father Robert Hall, also an alumnus of St. Michael’s in Toronto, and my father took care of the center’s legal work.
His Army Reserve unit made a donation in his memory, and upon completion, the new center’s sanctuary was consecrated in his name by the Bishop. That fact makes me regard the Newman Center, beneficiary of the most lasting gift made in his memory, to be a fitting place to house the record of his WWII exploits.
That small exhibit, centered around service to his country, could be expanded with documentation of service to his adopted hometown, and together, they would stand as the locus of the David J. and Teresa Conlin Read Prize, which may alternate between funds that will help a resident of Hamilton Homes make a down payment on a house, and a scholarship to an Oswegonian with an academic interest in the ethics of government.
Now, I’ve got to see if the Newman Center is interested, and then find a way to finance my big idea. A hockey tournament comes readily to mind, because all that would require is the resumption of a very successful and popular high school tournament that ran for about ten years before some school official let the ice melt under it!