Elsie Allen High School teacher Richard Conley dies at 61

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As the 2014 school year ended, Richard Conley, a merchant mariner long before he earned a doctorate and became a foreign-language teacher at Santa Rosa’s Elsie Allen High, wrote his graduating students a letter. He addressed neither French nor Spanish, but life.

“I have survived three car crashes, one hurricane at sea, two near drownings and now my latest challenge, cancer,” he wrote.

“I view all of the above moments as no more than Life’s affirmation that I stand here for (a) purpose. I am destined to be with you at this point in time.”

The native New Yorker urged the graduates to “stay happy and learn to smile more,” to “never stop learning, loving and connecting with all humans” and to not fret about him.

“I’m already on my second bucket list,” he wrote, “and am not going anywhere soon.”

Conley was proceeding with treatment for the lymphoma diagnosed last April when he died Dec. 27, three days after he was struck by heart failure. He was 61.

“His impact is going to be far-reaching,” predicted Mary Gail Stablein, the principal at Elsie Allen.

Lifelong friend Barry Levine, who likes to think he’s the reason that Conley and his wife, Judy, came to Sonoma County in 2006, said he knew no one more forward-looking and driven to set and fearlessly pursue goals.

“He was always dreaming of stuff he was going to do,” Levine said. He added that, as a “very, very passionate teacher,” Conley inspired young people to also venture boldly forth and, as he wrote in his letter last summer, “to suck all the marrow out of life.”

People close to him said Conley spoke seven languages — as of late, he was teaching himself Mandarin. He’d been a fine, left-handed pitcher through a stint at the University of Arizona, and he brought a rich array of assets to his work as an educator.

Starting his career on the East Coast, Conley worked as a junior high teacher and administrator in North Carolina before moving west. He taught at Vintage High School in Napa and at Healdsburg High before hiring on at Elsie Allen in 2008.

He and friend Levine met in the third grade in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan. “We never lost touch,” Levine said. Conley and his future wife, the former Judy Herz, met in the seventh grade.

She retold the family story about Conley’s dad taking him to his first Yankees game. Their seats were near the visitors’ dugout, so young Conley approached members of the Detroit Tigers to ask for autographs.

Judy Conley said the players were so nice to him, he told his dad, “ ‘I’m going to be a Detroit Tigers fan.’

“His father said, ‘You can’t do that!’ But he did it.” He would be a loyal Tigers fan for life.

After graduating from the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, Conley enrolled at the University of Arizona. He left after a year and joined the Merchant Marine. On and off for six years, he went to sea on cargo ships.

He recalled in his letter to Elsie Allen High students: “I have sailed the world, seen incomprehensible sunsets and sunrises, scaled volcanoes in Central America, caressed the marble of the Parthenon in Greece, watched hundreds of dolphins swim happily in their element in the Mediterranean, bathed in hot mineral springs in Chile, seen seven concentric circles around the moon, attended lectures in Spain, dined on cuisine in Japan on the Tatami mats, and so much more.”

Friend Levine said Conley would say that one of best things that happened to him as a young sailor was the inspiration he drew from an older, wiser seaman who treasured education and literature.

Conley “developed his love for literature in the Merchant Marine,” Levine said. “He was never without a book.”

Conley cut back on his seafaring to return to school. Focused on becoming an educator, he earned a bachelor’s degree at North Arizona University, then a master’s in school administration at Campbell University in North Carolina.

While working as a middle school administrator, he spent seven years earning a Ph.D. in education leadership at North Carolina State University.

Conley and former schoolmate Judy reconnected in 2001. They married in 2007.

They settled in Santa Rosa, and Rich Conley launched the West Coast chapter of his teaching career in Napa, then moved to Healdsburg High and Elsie Allen.

“Rich was all about education,” his wife said. “He loved these kids so much.”

His battle with cancer was going well when classes recessed for the holidays. His wife said there seems to be no explanation for why he went into cardiac arrest on Christmas Eve and died three days later.

At school following the break, Elsie Allen students wrote chalk tributes, some in French, on the walkway near his room. The school district widely distributed the 2014 letter in which he told his seniors, “I love each of you like my own sons and daughters.

“I believe in you. … Now go off and change this troubled but beautiful world.”

In addition to his wife, Conley is survived by his son, Richard Michael Conley of Fort Drum, N.Y.; his mother, Phyllis Conley of New York City; his sister, Gail Vareilles of New York City; and a granddaughter born Dec. 9.

Memorial donations are suggested to the Dr. Richard E. Conley Scholarship. Checks to the Elsie Allen High School Foundation can be sent to Elsie Allen High School, 599 Bellevue Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95407.

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