In late August 2009, Earl went in the hospital for aortic valve replacement surgery. The surgery went well and for a few days he was up and getting about. Then complications began with his lungs, first fluid, then one collapsed, and finally he was put on a ventilator. He was sedated and failing and his family decided to take him off the ventilator on September 20.
He had no self-pity about his worsening condition, no fear, but a calm belief in his final destination, a joyous reunion with his wife Christina. But Earl’s death was too sudden for all of us to grasp.
Earl was instrumental in founding the first Midwest Writers Workshop in 1974 at the suggestion of the late Dorothy Hamilton, a successful children’s writer and encourager of other writers from the Muncie area. Throughout the following years, he missed only a handful of monthly committee planning meetings, and was a “fixture” at every MWW, typically the one introducing faculty at the Workshop’s opening reception. In other words, he’s been our one constant in the past 36 years.
If you’ve attended just one of our Midwest Writers, or come back for more, you’ve met Earl. You probably didn’t know of his significant achievements. Humble and modest about his accomplishments, when introduced as Dr. Earl Conn, he’d quickly smile and say, “Just call me Earl.” He retired after 35 years at Ball State University where he served as chair of the Department of Journalism and became the first Dean of the newly created College of Communication, Information, and Media. He was an educator, administrator, editor, reporter, and prolific writer.
But Earl never really retired; he kept writing and publishing articles, and he kept his hand in organizing one of the best writers’ workshops in the nation. An early riser, his days were full. If my phone rang before eight in the morning, I knew it was usually Earl. Even as an octogenarian, he had no diminished stamina, but was hard-working, completing his travel writing assignments, planning another book, making note of potential MWW faculty members. So like Earl, prior to his surgery, he had worked ahead on his travel columns and wrote three weeks’ worth; his last one appeared in the Sunday he died, September 20th. Irony. God.
Year after year, workshop after workshop, Earl made new friends and welcomed old ones. It seemed appropriate that Earl was a Quaker or Friend, as his vocation was friendship – from university presidents to youngsters, he had friends everywhere. A magnet for people, especially writers, he had a remarkable approach to friendship that demonstrated the Quaker sense of really listening to others. He was generous with praise and encouragement, toasting small triumphs and gently pushing you on to your next goal. His words were considered and measured, yet, he was never one to “mince words” and expressed his opinions, even strong and controversial ones, openly.
And then there was his personal presence, his tallness, his deep resonating voice and laugh, his ready smile. He was witty and sometimes downright hilarious, quick with a joke or odd observation.
He was loyal, thoughtful. And so much warmth. And mostly his abundant kindness.
I have to admit that I’ve lost some enthusiasm for planning next summer’s workshop without Earl. I may have been the MWW director for the last several years, but Earl was always our leader, mentor, guide, shepherd. His phone number was on my speed dial and I referred to his wisdom on all things MWW, and life-things as well. When workshop decisions had to be made, my first thought was usually “W.W.E.D.”
Oh, he’d dish out advice and suggestions as I asked for them. But he also let me find my own sense of leadership. He was always ready for any task and was often my legs for “go-fer” trips to the printer or the Ball State mailroom. His last email to me was typical Earl, offering to help read and summarize the evaluations participants had written after the July workshop.
We all have an Earl story. Many of us more than one. You may not even have known Earl Conn, but if you’re reading this, you, too have an Earl story because the Midwest Writers legacy is part of Earl’s story. But for those of us blessed with memories of Earl, I hope you’re nodding right now and agreeing with me, “Yes, what a great guy. I am honored.”
Jama Kehoe Bigger