Friday, November 2, 2012

Phil Conway and local community spirit: a former This Week reporter looks back

(This letter to the editor was published in the August 22, 2012 edition of Barry's Bay This Week.)

Dear Editor,

It was with sadness as well as fond remembrance that I recently heard of Phil Conway’s passing. I worked for him as a reporter back in 1993, when he was publisher of this newspaper, and remember his cheerful and forgiving nature as if it were only yesterday.

Beyond representing his hometown as a local municipal councillor, he was also a staunch representative of the Madawaska Valley’s community spirit, a spirit that I view as being defined by a strong sense of hospitality. (When I refer to ‘hospitality’, I mean it in this case as an innate virtue – something that is practised without forethought because it is simply the natural thing to do.)

Thinking about Phil, as well as Barney McCaffrey, who also passed away earlier this year, got me to reflecting on my time in your community, where I was frequently the recipient of the above-noted hospitality. A few quick examples come to mind:

-My impromptu tennis lesson with then-Deputy Reeve, the late Eric Huestis. Concerned that I was wearing loafers on the court, he told me I’d perform better with more appropriate footwear, and insisted I drive all the way back to my trailer near Combermere to retrieve my running shoes, and then come back to resume the lesson. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll still be here.” Sure enough, he was.

-A particular venture to someone’s house to snap a picture – while I have long since forgotten who it was or the reason for the picture, I do remember that they wouldn’t let me leave without first sitting down for beer and pickled eggs in the backyard.

-At another backyard photo shoot, this time a small family reunion and cookout in the middle of the afternoon, the host got wind that it was my last assignment for the day. Someone handed me a plate and, before I knew it, it was late at night and I was still there, locked into a marathon of food and conversation, almost forgetting that this family reunion wasn’t my own.

All of the above occurred just within my first few days on the job, and came to represent typical encounters in my travels. As time went on, I would of course meet, write about and photograph many more of the characters that make up your community. And being a music guy, I also have particularly fond memories of the Tuesday night they let me play the drums (badly) at the Wilno Tavern’s weekly blues jam.

Then there was Phil himself – larger than life, constantly enthusiastic, and always with a beaming smile on his face. Whenever he had a joke to tell, you could see that boyish twinkle of benign mischief that seemed to be his signature. Conversely, whenever he had to impart criticism or corrective advice, he always did so in a way that respected the dignity and humanity of the person on the receiving end. (Being a greenhorn, I was that person on more than one occasion.)

The last time I saw him was in the winter of 1995, when I breezed through town and stopped into the office to say hello. He and his wife, Helen, greeted me with the same level of warmth and good cheer as they did on my first day on the job. Similar to my experience with the folks at that cookout, it felt like I was visiting my aunt and uncle rather than my former employers. It is truly a regret that I allowed myself to drift out of contact with them after that.

I will always be grateful to Phil and Helen for giving me the opportunity to serve (and get to know) their community as a young reporter just fresh out of college. Although I may not have realized it then, I was having the time of my life.

James Deagle
Ottawa, ON