Frank Conroy: Hero, farmer and family man

At Frank Conroy’s surprise 90th birthday party, held recently at the University of Guelph, he walked into a room full of family, friends and neighbours and said aloud, “I didn’t know I knew this many people!”

But one cannot be as loved and respected as Conroy and not be well known.

Together with his family, Conroy, who was born and raised in Puslinch Township,  has built a legacy in the area that will extend far beyond his years, rooted in the acres of local land his family has farmed and in his dedication to his country on the battlefields of the Second World War.

“How do you describe Frank? Humble, generous, giving, all about his family and friends. He’s like a grandfather to me,” said longtime friend and neighbour Scott Gillingham, a veterinarian in Puslinch.

“He is the history, from the Irish Catholics that came here and began farming.”

Conroy’s father and uncle left Ireland to settle here, arriving in Canada via Montreal. Drawn to the Puslinch area, his father chose to raise his family on the land, while his uncle headed to the city.

“My mother was from Mount Forest,” Conroy said, explaining his father and uncle ended up marrying sisters. “We were known as the city Conroys and the country Conroys.”

The country Conroys kept cows, hogs, chickens, geese and ducks, and earned a living selling meats at the Guelph Farmers’ Market.

“I enjoyed growing up here. The neighbours were like family, the vast majority were Irish too,” Conroy said. He recalls how the farmers supported one another and helped during times of harvest.

“Today’s farmers wouldn’t want to do it the way we did it back then,” he said of the hard work his lifelong trade required in the days before technology.

As the fifth of six children (the eldest child being the only girl), there was always much work to do.

“In the winter time, all we burnt for heat was wood,” he recalled, adding it was his job was to stack the wood. “I hated that job. It was the same thing over and over again: back and forth with the wheelbarrow. It seemed to take the longest time to do it over and over again.”

Churning butter he says was equally monotonous.

“At that time, you knew better than to say no,” he said, laughing.

Conroy loves to laugh and the mischief in his eyes is every bit as present today as it surely was in his childhood, as he recalls the trouble his siblings would get into when their parents were gone – like riding his father’s horses bareback through the fields, instead of working.

“I attended the Downey Road School House. It was a one-room school house for grades 1 to 8,” said Conroy. When it came time for high school, Conroy chose to work the land and carry on the family tradition.

The highlight of every week was Sunday, when the family took a horse-drawn carriage to Guelph to attend the Church of Our Lady.

“It was an hour and a half round trip,” Conroy said.

His childhood imprinted on him the value of hard work and deep faith. Both would lay the foundation to help him endure the horrors of war and the challenges of life in the years that followed.

When World War Two broke out, Conroy was working at Dominion Woollens Factory in Cambridge. Though he still helped on the family farm, he wasn’t classified as a farmer. So at the age of 19, he was called to serve his country.

“At that time, you got a call. I had to go to Hamilton,” he said. “If you didn’t join they could send you to B.C. or the U.S. to chop wood.”

Conroy joined the army in the ranks of the Irish Regiment of Canada.

“We trained in Orillia before they put us on a train to Halifax,” said Conroy of his basic training. “We’d stop every two hours or so. We were packed in like sardines.”

After two weeks in Halifax, the soldiers were loaded onto the HMS Queen Elizabeth and sent out to the Bedford Basin to await the convoy to Scotland.

After days waiting, the ship departed, taking 96 hours to cross the ocean. Upon arrival his regiment boarded a train to England. From there, Conroy would be stationed in Italy and Holland.

“I was trained for infantry,” he said, noting he wanted to drive tanks until he witnessed the horrific scene of a soldier killed trying to escape his tank during battle, and found hanging out the top of it.

“That changed my mind,” he said, with a smile. It is one of the only times he is able to smile recalling this chapter in his life.

Conroy jokes that if he couldn’t drive a tank, he’d blow them up and thus was handed the heavy load of carrying a PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank), a 15kg anti-tank weapon that launched a 1.1 kg bomb projectile.

“It was heavy when you added that to our packs,” Conroy remembered.

Many of Conroy’s memories are buried along with the friends and comrades he lost during the war, but as he worked his way up from a private to a corporal, there are a few stories he is willing to share.

He recalls being instructed by his sergeant to retrieve a dead soldier. Conroy described finding the solider’s body and cleaning off the dirt and pulling back the blanket draped over the body.

Conroy and a fellow soldier lifted the body into the cart and were about to turn back when the sergeant stopped them.

“He said, ‘There is still a leg left there,’ and we had to get it. That was enough for me,” Conroy recalls, saying that memory still makes the hair on his body stand on end.

He recounted the fear of one time he was on night patrol, crawling through the mud-filled trenches to spy on German bunkers.

“The sergeant asks for two people to go, and you can’t say no,” he said. “It was a real nice night. The moon was shining. We were crawling on our hands and knees. If it’s quiet, eventually you stand up …

“I saw a German get up (out of the bunker) and another German get in.”

His job was to report back what he saw. It wasn’t long before bullets began to fly.

“Bullets went between my legs, just past my arms,” he said. He made it back safely, but in the dawning of the next day, the bodies of two Canadian soldiers lay in the mud.

“And that started the tears,” he said. “If you ran into a dead German soldier, it didn’t affect you; at least it didn’t affect me. But when you saw a dead Canadian, it affected you.”

Despite witnessing the worst of humanity, Conroy’s strong Catholic faith guided him through the war.

“If it wasn’t for the Thirty Days’ Prayer, I wouldn’t have made it,” he said.

(His daughter Brenda recalls watching her father kneel in prayer to silently repeat that verse every day in her childhood.)

“When I was in Italy, I had an audience with the Pope. We had to have permission from the top guy to go to Rome. There were six other Catholics and myself,” he said. “The Pope said, ‘I hope the war is over so you can go home soon.’”

Seeing the destruction and poverty in both Italy and Holland changed Conroy’s world view.

“In Italy, food was scare. In Holland the people there were pretty well starved,” he said, adding the people were still kind to Canadians. “They were so generous with what they had. And the people in Holland were just so glad to see us.”

The day the war ended, Conroy and his fellow soldiers didn’t get the News.

“Nobody told us,” he said. “The Germans were coming out with their arms up. The Germans knew they were beat, but we had no idea the war was over for four more days. I was so glad to get out of there and get back home.”

When asked if the war changed his perception on being Canadian, Conroy said, “Canadians were brought up different. Of all the countries, I think Canada is the best place to live. ”

Back home, Conroy returned for three years to Dominion Woollens Factory before returning to farming alongside his brothers, with different dairy farm operations spread throughout Puslinch and Guelph.

In 1959, at age 35, he married his wife Georgia and raised Brenda and Maureen, who in turn are each raising a daughter.

Each year, Conroy joins his fellow veterans in the annual Puslinch Optimist Club’s Veteran’s Dinner.

This year, Conroy, a widower (Georgia passed away in 2008), took along his 14-year-old granddaughter Nicole Kupferschmidt. She was asked to lay a wreath at the Remembrance Day ceremony.

“November is the most awful time for me,” admits Conroy, who is grateful for the veteran’s dinner, as it is “a wonderful event.”

Conroy’s daughter, Brenda Kupferschmidt, said, “The joy of having his granddaughter attend this dinner and lay the wreath is something my father is still talking about.

“I can not express enough gratitude for the Optimist Club honouring the veterans each year and providing them with a photograph of this event.”

Such events help ensure the contributions of veterans like Conroy will not be forgotten.

Despite the end of the Conroy name, the family legacy will continue.

“I’d like to see the farm carried on in the Conroy’s name,” he said, adding the brothers worked for everything they had.

His daughter, Maureen McIlwrick, said, “My father and his family really dug their roots in, purchased property here.

“He loved farming, hard work, being his own boss, the challenges of farming and the area with its diverse history, ‘the Conroy history’.  To have my relatives provide Puslinch Township with such strong roots is a wonderful feeling.”

Gillingham considers his friend Frank to be a hero and was proud to be among the crowd at Conroy’s birthday party last month.

“He is one of the last farmers in this area; an agricultural man. He is part of the last generation. There is a heritage and value in his part of history,” Gillingham said.

“Frank fought for our country. He is our history. When you look at his hands … the labour on the land … it’s a history book. They are detailed in hard work.

“He is the root of our culture today. It’s a crazy world we live in and he is a part of the sanity we’ve lost.”