Tom Conley, sitting for a candidate interview in the studios of KCAW in September, 2014. After taking a year off board service to bring his Parkinson’s symptoms under control, he decided run for another term “Because I want to be a part of it.”  (KCAW file photo)

The Sitka School Board bid farewell to one of its longest serving members Tuesday night (5-1-18).

Dr. Tom Conley, who served a total of 17 years on the board, died at the Sitka Pioneer Home on April 18. He was 74 years old.

Downloadable audio.

Note: Board member Cass Pook, who has the longest continuous service after Conley, was not present at Tuesday’s (5-1-18) meeting. Conley’s wife, Marylyn, daughter Anya, and son Alexander, are planning a celebration of his life in the near future at SEARHC. Plans for a public celebration are pending.

Board president Jennifer McNichol asked the room to observe a minute of silence for Conley, then resumed the meeting by saying what everyone else was likely thinking.

“Not only was Tom one of the smartest people I ever knew, he was also one of the funniest. I will miss that.”

McNichol was a colleague of Conley’s at the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, where both worked as pediatricians. McNichol said “He’s a big reason I’m here, and maybe some of the rest of us, too.”

Conley moved to Sitka from Ketchikan in 1996 to work at SEARHC. He was on the school board in Ketchikan prior to the move, and he was on the school board in Wyoming prior to moving to Ketchikan.

“Caring for children was Tom’s life work. His intellect and his humor and his compassion were always evident in his work as a school board member.”

Mollie Kabler served with Conley on the Sitka School Board for 11 years. Conley’s role in those years was legislative education policy — which is possibly the most unsexy, arcane area of expertise a board member could choose.

Kabler says Conley excelled at the work.

“He mastered both the school funding formula minutae, and he developed a positive relationship with lawmakers. So he was a double-threat as that goes.”

A double-threat in the most positive sense of the term. Conley resembled the small-town baby doctor right down to his bow tie, but he was politically imposing. He served on the board during the height of the school voucher debate, when conservatives in the legislature hoped to redirect public school funding to private institutions in the name of parent choice.

Conley had a way of crossing the political no-man’s land and carrying the fight for public schools right to his opponents. Former Sitka superintendent Steve Bradshaw recalls that Conley had unusual access in the state capitol.

“Because there were times when you’d call and try to set up a meeting and they’d say, ‘Well you’re not in my district, so I’m not talking to you.’ Well, they didn’t say that to Tom. And I think a lot of it was because 1) Tom was respectful of every human being that he ever met, and 2) that he had a sense of humor and he made the visit enjoyable.”

And once Conley got his foot in the door, Bradshaw says Conley could quickly deliver the full weight of his argument, sometimes in 40 meetings over a couple of days.

“He was going in there talking about what it is that public education represented, and what it was they needed at the time, whether that was resources or anything else. Tom would lay out an intelligent plan that was hard to argue against.”

Conley was on the Sitka School Board from 1999-2017, serving two years as president. He took a year off in 2013 over concerns that his progressing Parkinson’s symptoms would affect his performance on the board. Once his concerns were allayed, he ran for his last term in 2014 and won. And although his physical symptoms did progress, he never lost his acumen for education policy.

Current Sitka superintendent Mary Wegner says that Conley left an indelible stamp on local education.

“I really attribute a lot of who we are as a school district to the beliefs and the values that he left as his legacy.”

Or, put another way by Steve Bradshaw, who considers Conley one of the best board members he’s ever worked with: “We were all fortunate to be around Tom.”