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McEntee: So many talents honed in 90 years, writer still at it

Published May 12, 2012 4:58 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In 1942, Grace Wall Conlon was working at Bell Telephone Laboratories with a federal scientific research and development team focusing on computer-generated firing of a field artillery piece.

Today, she's working to publicize an upcoming e-book of her 1978 novel, Satan's Caravan, an imagination-driven historical fiction based on Utah's Mountain Meadows Massacre.

In between, Conlon published a magazine in Florida, rose from clerical work to the executive staff over a 26-year career with Lever Bros. in New York City and ran Conlon Management Consultants Inc., specializing in strategic and marketing planning, business development and computer-based support.

Over the years, she's written for newspapers and professional magazines, penned poetry and a screenplay, dabbled in painting and written a Hawaiian song for ragtime piano.

One boss told her, "Grace, your problem is you like everything," Conlon said Thursday in her Provo home. "It's true. I never concentrated on one thing except the writing. I come back to writing every time."

Conlon, 90, is a vivid presence who once was greeted by a Civil War veteran, lived through the Great Depression in New York and remembers her dad fiddling with the radio and hissing, "Shhh. I think I'm getting Philadelphia!"

She married the late John Conlon, her "crazy Irish husband," a World War II veteran and a painter on the George Washington Bridge who once drove a burning truck out of the Holland Tunnel, probably saving hundred of lives.

All her life, she's balanced her creativity and family life with a love of business, statistics, marketing and consulting.

Two of her three daughters worked with her in Boca Raton on The Sandpiper, a tourist-oriented "freebie" magazine for hotels and other outlets. Besides being publisher, Conlon wrote most of the copy, including poems she illustrated. She even created its crossword puzzles. Connie Conlon Clarke was managing editor and Diane Conlon Bookach, a former Eileen Ford model, was marketing director and fashion columnist. A granddaughter wrote a teen column, and a grandson focused on sports. To this day, Conlon is close to all her children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

"My daughters all started working quite young," Conlon says. (Her oldest, Laurel, is a nurse.) "All of them were quite used to having a mother who was working. They were quite good about doing things around the house."

Then, on a trip to New York to find advertising outlets for the magazine, "fate intervened," Conlon says. She needed emergency surgery for a blocked carotid artery and time to recuperate. She and her family had to give up The Sandpiper.

"I'm a fatalist," she says. "It was not meant to be."

On the bright side, one daughter had a house in the Hamptons, where Conlon spent two happy years. In 1992, she moved to Utah to be near Connie.

Here, the devout Catholic would have a modest epiphany. She was accustomed to going to Mass but lacked a car and couldn't find transportation to and from church. So her daughter suggested she could receive the sacrament in her Mormon ward, and Conlon took her up on it.

She was immediately befriended by a couple who offered her rides to and from the wardhouse. There she saw "families, and well-behaved children, and everyone was helpful." She mentioned her interest to the helpful couple, and along came the missionaries.

"I believe there's a plan for everybody, a path," Conlon says. "And if things don't work out as you think they should, it means there's something better in the future."

Which leads us back to Satan's Caravan. Conlon wrote it to enter in a New York Daily News contest for a Western novel, even though neither she nor any of her family knew anything about the West.

She turned to her encyclopedia, which had one paragraph on an unnamed massacre that involved American Indians and Mormons.

"If nobody survived, I can make up my own story. No one would challenge it," says Conlon, who didn't win.

Still, she notes, even though the book isn't about Mountain Meadows itself, "I had so many things in my story that were exactly what happened. When I was writing the book, it was like someone was dictating it to me."

As for the current state of the world, Conlon can't stray far from her programmer/analyst/consultant role. Young people have to understand that in this computer age, she says, "there are no lifetime jobs. I advise people to develop the talents they have … and become an entrepreneur. So many young people are doing well."

If I were a young woman, I'd definitely take that advice to heart.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @PegMcEntee.