I was unable to attend the funeral Mass for Jim Conway, but I’ve been thinking about him quite a bit lately. He was one of a kind.
Somewhere around the late 1950s or early ’60s, he latched onto me during my student days at John Carroll. He needed help sending a big mailing to the JCU alumni and was a guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“C’mon, John,” he’d say. “I really need you. I’ve got to get 5,000 envelopes addressed by tomorrow morning.”
Invariably, it would be a day where I really needed to be studying or boning up for an exam. But, sure enough, the next thing I knew, I’d be down in the bowels of the old Administration Building running stacks of envelopes through an Addressograph machine.
Sometimes those envelopes would wind up carrying financial pitches to persuade JCU grads to ante up a few dollars to help out their alma mater. Other times, they’d be stuffed with feel-good materials, such as an invitation to an alumni communion breakfast, designed to foster a sense of loyalty to the school.
As Jim’s obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer pointed out, he was the University’s first non-Jesuit alumni director. In those days, his fundraising goals were modest. If he could entice the alumni to contribute $50,000 in one year, that was a banner achievement. He didn’t care whether a grad chipped in $5 or $500. It was percentage of participation that mattered most.
Well, he did a pretty good job at Carroll and was lured away by Ursuline College, for which he raised the millions of dollars needed to build the school’s new campus in Pepper Pike. Then, Case Western Reserve University recruited him to a position as associate vice president in charge of — you guessed it — fundraising. At CWRU, he helped grow the endowment fund to $1.5 billion dollars, up from a mere $78 million when he began.
One thing I remember about Jim Conway is he often preached the importance of transfer value – the principle that the fastest way to rise up the earning curve was to change jobs frequently, rather than become pigeon-holed in a low-paying post. I guess he was right about that. He followed his own advice.
But despite his relatively short tenure at John Carroll, he was always a loyal Blue Streak at heart. The young men he chose to work for him — JCU was an all-male college back then — never regarded him as a boss. He was more like a second father. More than once, he invited me to his home in University Heights, which is within walking distance of the Carroll campus. There, I met his lovely wife, K.T., which was an unusual shorthand version of her name, Catherine.
Jim and K.T. were blessed with a wonderful family; and you always felt at home at the Conway house.
For the life of me, I can’t remember how much I was paid for those long nights running the Addressograph machine — the kind where you inserted trays of small metal plates containing individual alumni addresses. I’m sure whatever I earned came in handy — at least affording me much-needed pocket money.
Too often, unfortunately, those nights spent addressing envelopes probably should have been devoted to studying for an exam in an optics or thermodynamics course. But Jim Conway was a true salesman — the sort of man you just couldn’t say no to.
I’m not surprised he became such a significant figure in the Cleveland-area fundraising community. I only wish I’d kept in closer contact with him throughout the years. His sage advice surely would have been helpful, as many a John Carroll student no doubt discovered.
Before long, I think I’ll pour myself a wee glass of Irish whiskey and offer a silent tribute to one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. I’ll say something on the order of the old Irish tribute: “Here’s to you, Jim … May the wind be always at your back … and may you be in Heaven a month before the devil knows you’re dead.”
But if I know Jim Conway, he’d find a way to get even the devil to help raise money for Catholic institutes of higher learning.
Rest in peace, old friend.
– John Sheridan ’62