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Patrick Conley’s fiery turn as historian laureate

Man About Town
By PHILIP EIL  |  August 29, 2012

Conley_main
A LIFETIME’S FEAST OF ACTIVITY Conley.

Patrick Conley stands in a hallway lined with framed New York Times and Providence Journal articles about his campaign to lure high-end businesses to Providence's industrial waterfront. Here on the fourth floor of his "Conley's Wharf" building on Allens Avenue, though, it's clear that the cruise ships and boutiques never arrived. Panoramic windows overlook an empty parking lot with a forlorn "Dock Conley" sign on one side of the building. On the other side, machines scoop and pick at towering piles of tangled metal.

The views disgust him, Conley says, as he launches into an impassioned tale of crooked deals, re-zoning flubs, and freeze-outs in the City Council chamber that, he says, explain this "Scrappalachian Trail." He hands me his latest venom-etched letter to the Providence Journal. In previous notes, he has awarded the paper with a "Goebbels Prize in Journalism" for its "Nazi-like" opposition to his waterfront plan and wondered aloud, "[W]ould the use of the word 'shenanigans' to describe my alleged actions be a subtle ethnic slur against the Irish?" This one ends with the phrase, "Let's follow the money!"

If it seems that Conley is dwelling in the past; well, he's got good reason. Earlier this summer, he was named the Ocean State's first-ever historian laureate. He is now encouraged, by law, to speak about local history. And speak he does. He was a professor of history at Providence College for over 30 years. He has addressed the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the Rhode Island Spanish-American War Centennial Committee, the Henry Barnard Club of Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Society. He has written more than 15 books, from 1977's Democracy in Decline, Rhode Island's Constitutional Development, 1776- 1841 to the recently released, cinder block-sized, People, Places, Laws and Lore of the Ocean State: A Rhode Island Historical Sampler.

But Conley isn't just a historian. He is walking history, itself. He's a lawyer, a developer, a philanthropist, a tireless chairman of local clubs and associations, and a Senior Olympian who tosses the javelin at events across the country. And, as he is quick to remind me, he is the chairman of the Rhode Island Publications Society, which meets here, in the Conley's "Fabre Line Club," named for the steamship operator that ferried thousands of immigrants from the Mediterranean to Providence in the early 1900s. Conley points proudly to the replica red-white-and-blue smokestack in the center of the room and the accompanying air horn that would "blow the windows out, blow your eardrums out," if you honked it.

As we walk around the room — past the stocked bar, the piano, the 30-foot boardroom table made of salvaged pine, the statue of Thomas Wilson Dorr — stories and statistics pour out of Conley. He has played baseball with Carl Yastrzemski and commandeered 1200 volunteers as chairman of the Rhode Island Bicentennial Commission in 1976. He was Mayor Buddy Cianci's Chief of Staff between 1979 and 1981. (The line about the ACLU being "jealous they don't have three wise men and a virgin in the whole organization" was his, Conley swears.) Nowadays, he is an active attorney who drops in to court to argue insurance claims and foreclosures. His presence in Rhode Island public affairs is so indelible that the writers of the Showtime crime series Brotherhood created the outspoken, gray-haired developer Martin Kilpatrick in his image. "They killed me in that one," Conley says. "They shot me in the mouth."

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  Topics: This Just In , History, New York Times, Patrick Conley,  More more >
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