By Doug Draper
Posted October 26th, 2016 on Niagara At Large
When I was hired fresh out of journalism school, to my first job at the then locally owned St. Catharines Standard in the summer of 1979, one of the first people I worked on a story with at the newspaper was photo journalist Mike Conley.
Mike was a tall, friendly guy who I immediately clicked with. He was patient with this green guy and what impressed me the most, is that it wasn’t just another click-the-shutter-and-run, photo shoot for him. He cared enough to stay around and capture the essence of the story I was tasked to capture in words – even when, in this particular case, neither one of us was likely to win a national newspaper award for a story about kids participating in a sheep shearing contest at the Welland fall fair.
That is one of the qualities that always separated true photojournalists like Mike – and a multiple award-winning photo journalist he was – from just plain photographers. And from that first story on, he was a friend and a mentor I always looked forward to going on assignments with as I graduated from sheep shearing contests to covering the environment beat at the newspaper.
One of many stories Mike worked with me on involved climbing down through tangled underbrush to the shores of the lower Niagara River on the American side where environmental scientists were fishing out freshwater clams to test for evidence of dioxin and other chemical poisons from a nearby burial site for toxic waste.
On assignments like that, he always came equipped with better hiking boots than I had and I never once heard him complain about how long it was going to take to where ever we had to go. And as always, he became totally absorbed in the story and people and would join in asking questions and sharing insights with me that along with his photos, added richly to the story.
Mike was a passionate student of history and volunteered many hours of his time at the St. Catharines Museum. He was a Beatles fan (who poured all the way through a couple of biographies on the group that I lent him and still haven’t read from cover to cover) who also loved playing golf and going on vacations with his wife Betty. In recent years, I had the pleasure of looking after their great cat Zeus while they were away on a trip, and they would return the favour by looking after our cats Dylan and Dexter whenever Mary and I were away for a week or so.
Mike was also the go-to guy whenever anyone needed to know who to hire to do some work on your house or where to go to get the best quality and price when you needed to buy a new furnace or stove or some other big ticket item. He could have achieved a great success starting his own version of Angie’s List right here in the Niagara region.
But most of all he was a devoted and loving husband, father, father-in-law and grandfather to his wife Betty, his daughters Brenda and Kristen and their families.
When Mike was diagnosed a few years back with a cancerous tumor on one of his lungs that could not be removed, he never let it beat him down and soldiered on courageously doing the things he loved doing until they end. His spirit through that whole journey was truly admirable.
Mike died at his home in St. Catharines on his 70th birthday this past October 12th with his family at his side.
Friends are invited to join his family for a celebration of his life this coming Sunday, October 30th from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Lock 3 Museum in St. Catharines on 1932 Welland Canal Parkway.
Just one more thing I want to say about Mike before signing off here.
The last time I worked with Mike professionally as a journalist was in 1998 when, along with other Standard newsroom staffers, we were out on a three-week strike and were involved in producing a strike newspaper called ‘The Independent’ that the community around us received very well and that we were very proud of.
As it turned out, that strike paper turned out to be the swan song for us and for about a dozen others as we took advantage of a buyout package our new union negotiated with Conrad Black’s Hollinger corporation that had taken ownership of The Standard a couple of years earlier and had immediately begun dismembering a once good newsroom that, on more than just a few occasions, did an exception job of covering the region.
Other than the few weeks we had at The Independent, the last year or two at The Standard were dark and stressful as we watched one person after another marched out the door or just plain leaving because they couldn’t stand it anymore.
It was during those rotten times that a neighbour of mine, who had experienced more than his share of labour strife during his decades of working in a local paper mill, warned me that times like this have a way of bringing out a lot of things – good, bad and ugly – that I would find out for the first time about people I had worked with for years.
My neighbour was right about that. And there were things I found out about some people that verged on being as bad and ugly as the times.
But never with Mike. Through all of it, and through everything else right up to the end, he was one of the very best of the good ones, and I will miss him dearly.
Mary and I wish to express our deepest condolences to his family.
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