Democrat File Photo
John Conway talks at the county's Bicentennial Ceremony back in 2009 at the Villa Roma.
Conway marks 20th year as historian
Story by Frank Rizzo
SULLIVAN COUNTY February 22, 2013 When he first ventured to write his long-running “Retrospect” column, John Conway made a promise to his wife, Debbie.
“I’m only going to write about dead people,” he told her.
And since so much of what he wrote was about gangsters, “I guess that’s a good rule of thumb!” Conway joshed.
The past has always fascinated Conway, who celebrated his 20th year in the politically-appointed position of County Historian last week.
The Monticello native and 1970 graduate of Monticello HS took a degree in Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech, but minored in history and political science.
Back in his hometown, in 1978, he started a gig at WSUL as a reporter (later becoming news director) and began a call-in show in 1980. A lot of it dealt with history.
“People had a lot of questions about the resort hotels,” said Conway, likening the inquiry “What happened to the hotels?” to “What happened to the dinosaurs?”
The position of county historian was mandated by the NYS Legislature and in 1948 Sullivan chose its first one, James Burbank.
“Fort Delaware was Burbank’s greatest legacy,” said Conway, who noted his predecessor was a great artist and model-maker.
Mansfield Wakefield held the position from 1961 until his early and untimely death in 1974. His self-published “To the Mountains by Rail” is his enduring work.
Wakefield, like Burbank a talented artist, “is the historian against which we’ll all be measured,” according to Conway.
Bill Smith succeeded Wakefield, and his 18-year tenure was the longest until Conway’s.
Smith was paid $27,000, but that was before the scope of his responsibilities (which included managing the County Museum and the historical records) was reduced. Not long after his salary was cut to $2,000, Smith retired.
Conway had in the meantime built his reputation via his radio show and columns. Debbie put in a word on his behalf to then County Clerk and political power Joe Purcell who had married Wakefield’s widow, Barbara.
On February 11, 1993, then Board of Supervisors Chair Andrew Boyar introduced a resolution to appoint Conway to the position and he was easily confirmed.
The position which has few defined duties currently pays $3,500.
Early in his tenure Conway got skeptical reactions when introducing himself at social occasions.
“I thought you’d be much older,” was a common rejoinder.
Now sporting a “distinguished gray” tonsure, Conway has “grown” into his role.
Conway hastened to warn anyone reading this that there are limits even to his vast knowledge.
“I’m not a genealogist,” he said. “I don’t have access to that kind of information.” The list of “unknowns” extends to inquiries about the history of specific residences or commercial buildings.
Past as prologue?
Conway does 30-35 speaking engagements every year. Most of the questions afterward revolve around the resort industry. There is still a lot of interest and nostalgia about that era.
“They ask me ‘How did [the decline] happen?’ and ‘Is [the industry] coming back?’ People want to know about the future,” Conway noted. “I don’t know why they believe an historian has the answers.”
But he quickly observes that “I think some answers are in history. It’s cyclical. We constantly have to reinvent ourselves.”
Conway has detected 25-year cycles in our history, in which one major industry has been replaced by another.
He coined the terms “Silver Age” and “Golden Age” to describe two distinct periods of county tourism and resort history. He developed the “models” of how tourism grew.
“Most of our historians have had their strengths and talents,” Conway noted. “They’ve left legacies writings, artwork.
“We try to leave [historical models] and information for those who come after us,” he added.
An inspiration was Bethel Town Historian Bert Feldman, who “showed people how much fun history can be. I learned a lot from him.”
Next: The writing and researching life.