Some of Denise Conroy’s (B.A. Political Science, 1993) earliest memories are of accompanying her father to his West Virginia University classes while he studied political science. He instilled in her a work ethic and motivation that she attributes to her success today as a president and chief executive officer.
Following her father’s unexpected death last year, Conroy and her family hope to honor his memory through the Charles F. Conroy, Jr. Scholarship in Political Science, a chance to give back to students just as he did as a WVU instructor. Denise reflects on her father’s life and how his guidance inspires her to be a leader today.
Tell us about growing up. What was your father like? What are some of your favorite memories of him?
My dad was a complicated guy. Perhaps more than anyone else, he represented the notion of duality. That’s to say that people are more “ands” than “ors.” And often times, those “ands” conflict. It’s that conflict that makes each of us a rare, beautiful mess.
To understand Charles “Chuck” Conroy, you have to know the story of his upbringing. It was grim. My dad was born on the North Side of Pittsburgh, Pa., one of the roughest areas in the city then and now. My grandparents had grade school educations. My grandma, Peg, was a spitfire. She was a five-foot-tall saint who was the only constant in my dad’s childhood. She made a living cleaning other people’s homes and office buildings. Dad’s father, Charles, was a very hard man, forged from crushing rejection in his own upbringing during the Great Depression. He had demons. And, he’d regularly abandon his wife and family to chase those demons. I can’t imagine how scary that must have been for my dad.
Chuck was the oldest in a poor, traditional Irish Catholic family. Being the oldest in any family carries tremendous pressure. But, being the first of five kids in an Irish family – and a male – carries extra weight. And, sometimes that weight can be crushing. Although my grandparents weren’t formally educated, they demanded academic excellence from my dad. From an early age, it became clear that his brain would be his ticket out of poverty.
After high school, Dad and a few of his buddies joined the Army. It was the height of the Vietnam War, but to a bunch of poor kids from the North Side, Vietnam seemed like an improvement. Dad’s test scores got him into the Army Security Agency (ASA). Although Dad was sent to Vietnam, he would be the first person to tell you that it was like a resort for him. His base had a maid and a pool. It was the nicest place he had lived in his entire life.
The ASA presented him with the intellectual challenge that he craved. In fact, only a few months into his post, he became a part of history – albeit a tiny one. Dad was tasked with intercepting radio signals. On January 23, 1968, he received a distress signal from the USS Pueblo, a navy intelligence vessel that was engaged in routine surveillance not far from North Korea. Shortly after, the North Koreans captured the 83-man crew and transported them to Pyongang. They were charged with spying, imprisoned and tortured for nearly a year before the U.S. secured their release. My dad always regretted that he couldn’t have done more for those men.
Vietnam was life-changing for him because it introduced him to new people, cultures and ideas. It expanded his worldview beyond the narrow confines of his old neighborhood. That neighborhood was very much divided into two worlds: black and white. In Vietnam, black and white didn’t matter. People were people.
Dad had always known he wanted to go to college, and the G.I. Bill was his ticket. He applied to WVU to study political science and was accepted. Dad had always loved history and politics and was also a skilled debater. No one could hold a candle to him in a political argument!
Growing up, my dad was the antithesis of his own father. He and I were inseparable. My mom worked full time while he went to school. They couldn’t afford childcare, so I used to attend classes with him. I loved reading and learning, and I remember being so proud to “take classes” with my dad.
My dad was a mentor to me from an early age. He taught me the merits of being transparent and direct. He also instilled in me a sense of pursuing greatness. He demanded that I be the best – second place and B’s were not acceptable. Dad was convinced that the world is full of people who do an average job and never want more. He wanted me to strive for being the best in everything I do.
What was your father’s career path?
My dad earned his Bachelor of Arts in political science and promptly pursued a Master of Arts. At that point, he started teaching classes as an instructor. He taught at WVU, Fairmont State University and the Kennedy Center, a federal correctional institute in Morgantown. He taught mostly introductory politics and government courses, and taught for about five years. At the same time, he had a wife and four kids to support. Teaching at that level, while very enjoyable, was not lucrative.
Instead, he decided to pursue a career in state government. He was an employee of the state of West Virginia for 25 years. He served as director of the Agent Orange Assistance Program, the Office of Geriatrics and Long-Term Care, Title XIX Program Operations, Senior Community Services Employment Program (Title V), Silver Haired Legislature and West Virginia End-of-Life Initiative. He was also chairman of the West Virginia Governor’s Summit of Aging, a member of the West Virginia Center for End-of-Life Care’s Advisory Board and a consultant on numerous health-related projects.
What was his teaching style? How did students perceive him?
My dad was a big fan of dialogue and debate. He loved to approach issues from all sides. To him, partisanship was simplistic and foolish. He was always seeking to uncover the smartest hypothesis in the room. He was a master of critical thought, and students appreciated that because it kept them engaged in the subject matter. He was wildly articulate, a gifted orator. He had a sense of gravitas not matched by many.
As a professor, did your father play a role in your decision to study political science? If so, how?
Absolutely! His passion for politics was contagious. Politics and talking about issues was part of my life from the beginning. I remember reading anything I could find about the presidents as early as the second grade.
Why did your family decide to make this gift at this time? How do you hope it will help future political science students?
My dad loved WVU. His youth and all of his formative ideas are wrapped up in this special place. My best memories of him took place on this campus. Losing him was sudden, and it devastated all of us. My family and I want a piece of him to endure through helping others. Giving to students in need would have made him so happy and fulfilled. My only regret is not doing it while he was alive.
To learn more about the Charles F. Conroy, Jr. Scholarship and other Eberly College of Arts and Sciences scholarships or make a contribution to a scholarship fund, visit give.wvu.edu/ecas-PoliticalScience.
This donation was made in conjunction with A State of Minds: The Campaign for West Virginia’s University. Conducted by the WVU Foundation, the fundraising effort will run through December 2017.