Some readers of this page may have known Steve Conn, an old friend who died this past Tuesday after being in poor health for several years. Steve was a talented journalist and publicist who was both delightful and crazy. Below are some remarks I prepared about his connections with Cornell, from which he graduated seven years prior to my graduation.
Were you to attend a reunion of the Cornell Class of 1960, who graduated 52 years ago, you would likely meet a lot of men wearing buttoned-down white shirts and rep ties and of course sport jackets or even suits. There might even be a few with pocket protectors. The women—and Cornell has always been co-ed—would likely be attired in tasteful suburban outfits. According to their latest class letter, 17 classmates have each contributed more than $1 million to the university.
We commemorate one member of the Cornell Class of 1960 who did not conform to this rather dull profile. When I would run into Steve at annual alumni meetings in New York City—invariably held at one or another of the major hotels managed by Hotel School grads—I’d see him chatting excitedly (did Steve speak in any other way?) with these corporate cut-outs and thought he must be the class member imagined for the class by Damon Runyon. It was as if he’d just wandered in from Broadway or climbed out of the BMT.
Steve graduated from Cornell before I even got there three years later. It was a different place then. Even by the time he graduated, you could still travel there by going to the old Penn Station and jumping aboard the Lehigh Valley’s Black Diamond Express to Ithaca. And for men, until two years after he graduated, two years of ROTC were mandatory. You also had to (and still did when I was there) pass a swimming test to graduate. But some things stayed the same. One was The Cornell Daily Sun, where both Steve and I spent huge amounts of our collegiate lives and where Steve learned a lot of his trade even before he got to Columbia’s J School.
His class recognized that Steve was cut from a different cloth—not just because he was from Brooklyn, heck there were lots of people there from Brooklyn; right, they were the ones with the pocket protectors—but that he was street-smart, had a great gift of gab, and knew how to put some snappy sentences together. They recognized that Steve had skills and knowledge that they couldn’t imagine—to take us back a few decades, they had slide rules and he had the clipboard, the one with a clip, not the one you cut-and-paste with on MS Word.
Steve had the ability to build up enthusiasm by using words but also through his expansive personality. And just as these incredibly dissimilar types appreciated Steve, Steve was fond of his Cornell days and enjoyed hanging with these guys, which always amazed me. I figured he might actually be getting some business from some of them, since they usually appeared to be well-heeled, but then at one of these gatherings, he came over to me and asked me if I knew of a possible job for one of them. Maybe this was Steve’s early ability to network but so much for my thinking that he was the one profiting from it.
Steve was indeed fond of Cornell and when Sam Roberts first worked one summer at the Times, he came back to Cornell full of stories about his high times running around day and night with this wild-man reporter, Steve Conn. Sam, of course, went on to become City Editor of the News and a veteran Times reporter and TV presence. He’s out of the country and wished he could have been at the funeral. Another old friend with whom I attended a Cornell-Princeton football game a few years ago was so mesmerized when we sat with Steve that I thought I’d engineered a fix-up. Without knowing anything about his condition, she asked me a week or two ago out of the blue how he was doing. I doubt that anyone who ever met Steve forgot him.
I thought about Steve and Cornell a week or so ago when I went to a Cornell crab feast on the Eastern Shore. I’ve lived in DC for years and that’s the kind of thing we do. There were lots of people there and the couple on whose huge farm it was held graduated from Cornell the year after Steve did, and looked a lot older than he did even in the bad shape he was in when I saw him last week. But I thought back to the last time I’d been to a Cornell crab feast, which was the one Steve had taken me to back in the mid-70s when I was first living in Washington. As always, he was the life of the party and made sure I met everyone who was anyone, and then a few more, too.