I have yet to meet anyone who knows Dr. Pat Conley and doesn’t have an opinion of him. Words like colorful, brilliant, acerbic, learned, rabble rouser, persistent, community leader, and witty usually top the list. Sprinkle in some more unprintable verbiage, and you have the essence of one of the most dynamic individuals Rhode Island has ever seen.

Known for his incendiary letters to editor or opinion pieces in newspapers, he skillfully and surgically removes any doubt of which side he is on in any given topic. That side of the “Professor” is a small part of the story of the kid from South Providence who rose to great heights throughout his academic, legal and business careers, and after earning his master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Notre Dame.

Take a look at his biography, and you will also learn that this father of six and grandfather of seven is an acclaimed author and lecturer who has also excelled in sports, earning top honors from childhood into his senior years, even being named “All American” at the age of 75 for his javelin throws at four USA Masters Track and Field events that took place in 2013.

My problem with writing this column is where to start because Pat Conley has lived multiple lives at the same time.

Sure, he was a respected Professor of history and constitutional law at Providence College from 1963 to 1993, taught at LaSalle Academy in his earlier years, was an adjunct professor of law at Roger Williams University School of Law and even did a stint at Salve Regina College, but he also was a major developer in the city of Providence, wrote an astounding 28 books, was the chairman of the Rhode Island Publications Society, chairman of the Heritage Harbor Foundation, chairman of the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame (an inductee in 1995), and also served as co-chairman to the U.S. Information Agency’s advisory panel, was the Grand Marshall of the Gaspee Days Parade and Providence’s 1976 Bicentennial Parade. It would be hard to find some committee or event marking Rhode Island’s history that Pat was not involved with or asked to lead.

This love of history and the Rhode Island led to Dr. Patrick T. Conley’s appointment as Rhode Island Historian Laureate in July 2012. This unpaid but highly respected position is believed to exist in only two or three states across the country, and as usual for Pat, it did not come easily.

Due to politics, of course, something that should have been a no-brainer became a political hot potato when then Governor Donald Carcieri vetoed the legislation creating the position in two successive years. Finally, after the creation of a “screening committee” and 58 letters of support from luminaries throughout the country, Pat Conley was appointed to the position in July of 2012 thanks to the then newly-passed law that gave the secretary of state the appointment authority.

True to form, Pat went into the newly minted position with subtlety of a hurricane, scheduling over 40 public appearances in the first year. Those appearances ranged from discussions of key moments in Rhode Island’s history to being the key speaker at an event entitled “The Life and Career of Former Congressman John E. Fogarty” on the 100th Anniversary of his birth.

Pat thoroughly enjoys his new position, so much so that he donated a huge volume of his private books on history to Notre Dame, Roger Williams University, and Johnson & Wales University so “people could learn about Rhode Island.” While not lecturing, battling the state over his land and facilities on Allens Avenue (a length of road that Pat affectionately calls the “Scrapalacian Trail” due to the large and ugly volume of scrap metal placed literally on the side of his recently renovated property and wharf area), practicing law, and developing properties throughout Rhode Island, Pat is now happiest doing his volunteer work on behalf of the citizens of the state.

Pat and Gail Conley stand in front of a statue of Thomas Wilson Dorr that they donated to the state of Rhode IslandConsidered one of the nation’s experts on Thomas Wilson Dorr (The Dorr Rebellion), who most agree was a character in his own right, one who tried, in the 1800s, to change Rhode Island’s electoral system and provide more balanced political system than the early system which tilted toward the rich landowners. Pat and his wife Gail donated the prized statue of Dorr to the State. The “Sentinel” now sits outside the Rhode Island Senate chambers.

Though Pat’s speaking schedule has not slowed, he now plans on devoting more time to some travel and relaxation with his 4th wife Gail (the former Gail Cahalan), who as Pat proudly proclaimed “the 4th is a charm.”

They recently took a 30-day trip through the Baltics (“It was on my bucket list.”) but now Pat wants to confine his travel to New England and New York. According to Pat, “My wife and I have been to all 50 states and all 10 Canadian Provinces. We drove through them because I don’t like airplanes.”

Pat and Gail at Dock Conley

When you sit and talk with Pat at his beautiful seaside Bristol home (which is again a tribute to his weird sense of humor as his neighbors, some of whom are related in some way to the storied DeWolf family and have a wolf as a sentinel or mascot — Pat, not to be outdone or maybe show some Irish wit, chose a “DaFox” for his), you get the impression that this complicated man of high intellect loves nothing more than sitting at his favorite desk hand-writing his next book or perhaps some colorful prose. His personal library of books and articles rivals any college library and everywhere throughout his home you get a sense of history, including the storage of a mast from the continental Sloop Providence, which his State Bicentennial Commission helped to fund in 1976.

I don’t expect that the poison pen will retire anytime soon, nor will the pen of history that certainly has a few more books to write on Rhode Island’s proud history.

Rhode Island is fortunate to have Dr. Patrick T. Conley as its Historian Laureate.

In this day of 24-hour news cycles, the internet pumping out story after story — some legitimate, some total fabrication with no filters — and mobile phones serving as the new encyclopedias with a simple Google search, it’s nice to know that our state’s storied history is in the hands of someone who not only wrote the books, but who also tells the stories with passion and reverence.

This article appeared in the January 2016 issue of The Rhode Island Echo.
J. Michael Levesque is a former Mayor of West Warwick and contributor to The Rhode Island Echo.