The Remarkable Life and Untimely Death of a Mad Man
Charles Wilson Conn
(July 27, 1938 – April 29, 2022, aged 83)
4pm ET, Friday May 6, 2022 — my Dad died exactly a week ago. It’s time for me to share some thoughts.
How do you summarize a life in a few hundred words? As his oldest son, I’m going to take a crack.
First of all, I think it’s important to note that he went down fighting — cursing politicians, the “damned Truderals,” and woke culture even as his body failed him. You gotta admit, my Dad was one-of-a-kind. He’d want everyone to know that he was sharp as a tack to the last second, maintaining his full faculties and intellectual power well into his 80s. In the end, he knew that his body had lost the fight to keep his brain alive, and he chose … in fact, he INSISTED … that the hospital remove him from oxygen (COPD + Pneumonia had proven to be formidable opponents), and let him slip peacefully into the night. 24 hours later he was gone.
My Uncle Arthur — my Dad’s younger brother — was the last to see him, visiting him at Campbellford Memorial Hospital just a couple of hours before he slipped away. Arthur spent a lot of time with my Dad at the end, and he is a really good brother. Arthur and I lost touch over the years, but this experience has reconnected us and we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other in the future. I’ll make sure we do.
Here’s the lineage for future genealogists: Predeceased by his parents, Mabel and Howard Conn and his brother Gordon. He is survived by his loving wife, Erika and a stepson, Arnold Foote. He is also survived by his former wife, Genevieve, their children Grad, Morgan (Amanda Paschke), and Meredyth; his brother Arthur; and grandchildren Myrna & Trinity (Suzy and Grad); and Alexander & Zoe (Amanda and Morgan).
Erika, my Dad’s wife of the last 30 years, fondly recalls drinking gin & tonics while overlooking the valley from the porch of their idyllic house in Hastings, Ontario (Canada) where they moved after retirement. My Dad spent years clearing more than 75 trees and innumerable rocks on their property to create a beautiful landscape on which to gaze. Erika’s plan is to scatter his ashes across that valley sometime this summer, “…when the wind is blowing favorably.” I hope I’ll be invited.
I feel a little ambivalent that my Dad died in a hospital. I think that if he’d had complete agency in the matter it’d be with a Canadian Club in his left hand (a “CC on the Rocks”) while he used his right hand to plunge the detonator on a windmill. It’d be glorious, it’d be just, and it’d be deeply satisfying — at least for my Dad.
My Dad also leaves behind a large group of friends, many of whom he went to school with at Queen’s University in the early ‘60s, and others he befriended through his many adventures over the years, such as the time he attended the World Scout Jamboree in Australia in 1955.
I got a call the night my father died from Willy Liesner, who told me he originally met my father in 1959 when they worked together at Inco in Sudbury (Ontario). They had an unbroken friendship over all the decades since, and my father was fondly reminiscing about Willy and his winery in his very last days.
Another great friend of my Dad’s was Bob Wyckham, who encouraged us to move to Vancouver and who — along with his incredible parents Rupert and Marg — were amazing family friends and a great source of support for my family. Bob also pulled my Dad into a teaching role at Simon Fraser University, which my Dad enjoyed immensely but for some reason could never get to class on time. Dad and Bob were friends since childhood, growing up in north Toronto (my Dad’s childhood home was 210 Joicey Boulevard — at the time, the area where the 401 now runs was all farmland) with many great stories, including one about being chased by a farmer on whose property they kept intruding, until the farmer started shooting at them with salt loads in his shotgun. That convinced them to find greener pastures, literally.
My Dad is a Queen’s University Commerce 1962 graduate (I followed directly in his footsteps), and “Chas” is fondly remembered by the 188 Ordnance Street Gang. While none of them have ever been able to eat Kraft Dinner again after a steady diet of it throughout second semester, they appreciate my Dad for cooking it, and keeping them all alive. The Gang has been great over the last few days, sending remembrances, fond memories, funny stories, pictures, and genuine love for my Dad that he would have treasured. Thank you to Gavin, Pat, and Bev.
After Queen’s, my father started his career in advertising —beginning at Y&R in Toronto and then Y&R in New York City (where he invented the angled broom for the Drackett Company) and then back to Canada for an extended leadership stint at J Walter Thompson, first in Toronto where he created the “C Plan” which became the communications template for the agency for many decades (I still use it today) and then onto leadership of the JWT Vancouver office. I loved having a Dad in advertising — I’d have him come in and speak to my classes (usually to de-bunk pop trash like the book Subliminal Seduction) and he’d always bring home props from various commercial shoots. I still have them all, and they’re treasured mementos. We also got to try things before they were public, such as blueberry Aunt Jemima waffles, which were a big hit at the breakfast table!
As his career matured, he moved into various marketing leadership roles at companies such as Controlled Foods and Bright’s Wines. During these years my father and I made a couple of trips to Campbell River in British Columbia, where we would catch our limit of salmon for a few days and return with a massive supply that was either frozen, canned, or smoked. Those were amazing trips — the cry of loons echoed in our ears while we watched eagles glide across mist-covered waters to pluck unlucky salmon who were curious about the surface. Then, we’d wile away the nights talking politics and advertising over wine and more salmon. Ah yes, the PNW — so much salmon.
After retiring from Bright’s he led the charge to make Canadian Icewine a luxury drink in Asia. He rounded out his work career with an unsuccessful but bold run for office as the Reform Party candidate for Mississauga South. In those years I saw my father a lot because I was still living and working in Canada. We would often have lunches together and frequently went golfing at Granite Golf, where I was a member. I loved golfing with him because he was really terrible at the game, and as a result he was not only easy to beat but also hilarious to watch in his frustration at “… this fucking game.” He was never able to pass any golf clubs onto me because he would either break his clubs in half or throw them into the water traps in fury. I would always gently coach him that if he hung onto his clubs, it would be easier to hit the ball. Didn’t seem to work.
It’s been said that my Dad’s first marriage — to my Mom, Genevieve — was “disastrous.” That’s not really how I remember it, and I have hyperthymesia (HSAM) which gives me a fairly high level of confidence in saying that my parents really loved each other, and really cared for each other. It got all messed up due to finances and cigarettes (and my Dad’s stubbornness on both). It really is a shame, because there were some hella great times. My Mom has always liked to say that all three of us — myself, my brother Morgan, and my sister Meredyth were all conceived in love which is quite a lovely and beautiful sentiment and also … eww … my parents having sex … eek.
When we were young, Sunday mornings were incredibly special. The day would start with us rushing into our parents’ bedroom at a reasonably early hour and my Mom and Dad would dutifully “tent” their legs so that we could crawl under the covers and be in a bed fort where we would goof around and fight with each other. My parents actually started tenting when I was just barely walking when we lived in Chatham, Ontario and it continued throughout our childhood, until we all moved to Vancouver, British Columbia (when a lot of our family habits seemed to stop). On the FM radio the Carpenters would be playing, or we’d sing along to “The Lord’s Prayer,” by Sister Janet Mead. As the morning wore on we would then “buffalo” our parents out of bed, using our heads to push them onto the floor. As I write that sentence there’s definitely something weird about that activity, but it was super fun at the time. As a side note, I wisely never introduced my kids to the Sunday morning “buffalo.” Once things calmed down and both our parents were properly deposited on the floor, we’d go downstairs and my Dad would make coffee and fry bacon in our square GE electric frying pan and my Mom would make eggs & toast (or sometimes cinnamon French toast) and we’d all sit down to a big family breakfast. Being Canadian, there was always lots of maple syrup for the French toast. Those were wonderful and special times, and I miss them.
Anyone who’s been a parent knows that you save your children’s lives over and over again. I can’t count how many times my kids would have killed themselves without a strategic arm or hand to pull them out of harm’s way. In the late ’60s/early ’70s — my Dad’s true “Mad Man” era — we lived in Suffern, NY on an acre of property on a street called Cottage Lane (we were #5). It was a beautiful piece of property, and we would have deer and many other forms of wildlife in the backyard. Including snakes. So many snakes. Including Copperheads, which are pretty dangerous (they are a venomous snake known as a “pit viper”). One day my Dad and I are walking in the back and he said “Grad, stop.” Dutifully, I stopped (I was a very obedient kid). My Dad backed me up, slowly, as I was just a foot away from stepping on a Copperhead. He then quickly sent me back inside, grabbed a shovel from the garage and then raced back into the backyard and with a single swing cut off the head of the Copperhead. Thanks Dad! We feasted on Copperhead soup that night. Actually, not really, but I loved the boisterous and Viking-like sound of that last line to belie the fact that I could’ve died.
The New York/Suffern years were particularly interesting. It was there that I picked up my first 10 stitches — five on my upper lip from a boomerang helpfully thrown by the kid two doors down. And five on my right eye socket when the same kid knocked me over onto a rock. I still remember being held in my Dad’s arms with blood running all over my face, not sure if I’d just lost my eye. Then the same kid threw me out of his tree house, and that was the last time I played with him, but to their credit my parents sat down with his parents to explain why I wouldn’t be playing with their psycho kid anymore. Because, you know … he was crazy. They took it pretty well.
My Dad did an amazing job in the backyard of our Suffern home — it was an acre property, and covered in trees. My Dad strategically cleared different areas for my Ranger Station, swing set, sandbox, and other play areas so it still had that great “wooded” feel, but with areas of play that would emerge almost magically from the forest. It was amazing, and I spent entire days back there lost in my imagination. I can’t imagine how much work it was for my Dad to clear that much forest, especially while working at one of the hottest agencies in the world at the time. I hope he found it therapeutic.
On the other side of our house was the Corrao family: Augie, Doris, Jennifer, and Phyllis. They were a wonderful and incredibly welcoming American-Italian family who have remained family friends our whole lives. I count Phyllis as my oldest friend, and we’ve known each other since I was four.
We moved into our house in Suffern in May 1968, but actually lived with with the Hills in New Jersey for a few weeks at their house while our house was being completed. Marion Hill, in her third trimester, and with another young child, was amazing at welcoming us to stay at their place. In a classic Dad Move, my Dad just went to the Hills, and said “we need to live with you for a while…” and they somehow agreed. My Mom was also in her third trimester with Morgan.
The Corraos moved in next door later that summer. That fall, Doris casually asked my Mom about our Thanksgiving plans. Since we were Canadian, we’d already had our Thanksgiving in Canada more than a month before, and we weren’t super locked into the American tradition around Thanksgiving, which I’ve since come to understand is really the biggest secular holiday of the year, in tight contention with July 4th. Anyway, my Mom said “we’re just going to have some turkey TV dinners…” and I’m sure she hadn’t even really finished that sentence before a look of horror crossed Doris’ face and we were immediately invited over for the most amazing Thanksgiving meal ever (and many more meals and holidays from then onward). My parents were blown away by the incredible food in the early courses, and asked for seconds, which was a strategic error because they underestimated the number of courses. The first course was pasta, and my parents were thinking that was the main course. As the food kept coming, including a turkey, they were getting fuller and fuller and fuller. They almost didn’t make it through the whole meal.
Augie was a good person to know. He had a lot of friends in entertainment, and he was able to get my parents stage-side seats at places like the Copacabana. For example, one night they were seated right next to the stage while Dionne Warwick performed! My Dad wanted to thank Augie for all his generosity, and it turned out that being Canadian had a very specific advantage. As most people know, there was an embargo in the USA on Cuban cigars (and everything else Cuban) in the 1960s (and 1970s, and 1980s, and 1990s, and 2000s).
But not in Canada. Cuban imports were wide open. In fact, Canadians could and did easily travel back and forth to Cuba during the entire period of the U.S. embargo.
It turns out that Augie really liked having a Cuban in his hand, and it was a great sign of status with his peers that he could get real Cuban cigars. So, whenever my Dad would go to Canada, he’d bring back some Cubans for Augie. It’s the little things…
At Y&R New York they would have two holiday parties — one for the staff (if you’ve watched Mad Men I think you can guess what those were like) and one for the families. The family party was great — they essentially turned the agency into a county fair. Each office had a different “station” in it … one would be a fishing game; one would be a bobbing for apples station (there’s something that’s NEVER coming back); and one had an art director in it who was drawing caricatures of the kids. That’s mine on the left. I kept it all these years, eventually framed it, and it hangs somewhere prominent wherever I live. I think that whoever that AD was, he did a great job!
It’s interesting how the mundane seems so profound now. How much I would love to sit with my Dad in our backyard after he’d finished mowing the lawn. He would sit in one of those webbed lawn chairs with the green nylon straps, and have a Labatt’s 50 in a tall beer glass. He’d always let me have a sip. I can still smell the fresh cut grass and hear our neighbors playing in their pool over the buzz of grasshoppers that is the white noise of the suburbs.
There were a lot of special family memories and traditions that we created, especially at Christmas, and many of which I carried over to my own family and shared with my own children. I know that my brother has done the same. For example, on Christmas Eve, my Dad would sit down with all of us and first read Matthew 2:1-12 from our Conn Family Bible, and then he’d read “The Night Before Christmas”. We’d be dressed in our new pajamas which my Mom would sew (she’d make a nightie for Meredyth) and then we’d hang our homemade stockings by the chimney with care, leaving out a glass of milk and my Mom’s homemade chocolate chip cookies for Santa, and of course, a carrot for Rudolph. On Christmas morning all of Santa’s gifts were delivered unwrapped and arrayed over the fireplace and we’d go through our Santa bounty and then have breakfast before unwrapping the rest of our gifts. The best part? We could get up whenever we wanted and go through our Santa gifts without parental supervision! We’d excitedly run up and show my Mom & Dad what Santa had left, and they’d feign surprise. We always lived in a house with a fireplace, and we always had Christmases with tons of presents, lots of holiday activities, and wonderful memories. While there were moments of financial anxiety in our household — like any other — we always lived in great houses, drove nice cars, had lots to eat and all three of us went to university. My Dad worked hard to provide for us, and he deserves credit for the sacrifices he made to create a life and provide for his family.
The Mississauga years were fun for me from a business standpoint, because I was getting old enough to get a look into the world in which my Dad lived. At this time, which is the early- to mid-’70s, it was still quite fashionable — and expected — to do business entertaining at home. It’s hard to imagine today in our restaurant-based approach to business entertainment, but if you want a peek into the not-so-distant past, watch a few episodes of Bewitched. Darrin is constantly inviting clients and Larry Tate over for dinner, usually with a very last-minute heads up to Samantha, or as a total surprise. That’s when Sam’s nose twitch came in super handy. If you listen to what Sam is serving, they are typically dishes from Julia Child‘s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which became a near overnight sensation in the early ’60s and swept through American homes like a tsunami. By the early ’70s this approach had become well-established, and if you want to really get sucked back in time, watch the first 5 minutes of Ang Lee‘s 1997 masterpiece The Ice Storm. Set in 1973, the opening scene drew an audible gasp from me, starting with a close up of a 1970s metal ice cube tray (those things were nasty for frost burns) and then cutting to a scene of adults around a table with the children serving food like little tiny butlers. Wow, oh wow, did that bring back memories, right down to the turtleneck the boy is wearing. At my parents’ parties I got to be the bartender, mixing drinks behind a bridge table. As we got to the bottom of various mixers, I’d make myself a drink from the leftovers (just mixers, calm down) and I called it “Mud.” Except for Canada Dry Wink — that I loved straight. As the evenings would wear on, we’d start to run out of glasses and my Mom would scour the kitchen for more. By the end of the evening I was serving Gin & Tonics in Yogi Bear mugs (my parents had a lot of Yogi Bear stuff because their pet names for each other were “Yogi” and “Boo-Boo”). Even today, when we’re running low on glasses at a party, you’ll hear me say: “time to switch to the Yogi Bear mugs.” It’s interesting as I think back to the outsized influence my parents had on me at this period in their life, and I’m glad I was there to see them in their business entertaining heyday, with my Mom in her long skirts and pixie cut hairstyle, and my Dad in his 3-piece suits and Hai Karate cologne.
We also had some pretty awesome summer vacations. For a few seasons we rented a cottage with the Scotts at Thunder Bay Beach, which is just off Georgian Bay. It’s far enough north that you can see the northern lights. I learned to sail there, saw my first drive-in movie there (Walt Disney’s Robin Hood), and got into horror comics there … to my Mom’s dismay. After Thunder Bay Beach, we rented a cottage in Cape Cod and had a bunch of great adventures musseling, rowing everywhere, and rolling down dunes. It was an idyllic and special time, and it’s not something I ever thought would change.
And “agitation” — it was so much fun. Anytime we wanted something from my Dad, we would “agitate.” For example, Morgan and I really wanted a dog. One day while driving back from church on a Sunday morning, the two of us in the backseat of my parent’s brown Ford Galaxie 500 began slapping the vinyl seats and started shouting “we want a puppy with a bow … we want a puppy with a bow … we want a puppy with a bow.” What did we end up with? A giant black Labrador, who was as about as crazy as a dog can get. I still have scars from that dog, which dragged me down the street on multiple occasions. We should have known better when we named her “Shane,” which must have confused the hell out of her. Nonetheless, “agitation” was a proven successful technique for getting what we wanted. We just weren’t very good at knowing what we wanted…
My last e-mail from my Dad was about a week before he went into the hospital. It was one of those relatively benign “remember how great things were when we were young” emails that tend to float around on what I like to call the “Senior Internet” (also known as email strings). Other emails that month included “look at this!” type emails and a bunch of Fox News-inspired political commentary. But the one that really got me was this one from February, which he sent to me on my birthday:
Happy Birthday my son.
I still have a very clear memory of pulling an all-nighter at TGH while you took your sweet time deciding whether to emerge into the cold February night/morning. That day I handed out a box of cigars at Y&R and received quite a few chuckles at my enthusiasm because, of course, I was the first man on earth who’d ever had such a splendid son. Turns out I was right! Have a good one, Love to Rachel, Stay well.
Ah crap Dad, why did you have to go so soon? Your parents lived into their mid-90s, you should have lasted a lot longer. Dammit.
In his last days I talked to him — as usual — about advertising, and talked about his career as a “Mad Man” (short for “Madison Avenue Man”). He laughed ruefully, smiled, and commented — “Mad Man to Farmer.” And he was rightfully proud of the work he had done on his property, wrestling civilization out of the wild. He often asked me to come up and see his handiwork, but somehow I was always too busy (cue “Cat in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin).
My Dad loved his summers as a boy at his Uncle Perry’s cottage on Lake Rideau. The last story he told me in the hospital bed in which he died was how he would take a punt out to the marsh areas on the edge of the lake. One day he found a turtle graveyard — literally hundreds of turtle shells littered all over a tiny bay. As he turned to paddle back to the island, his punt was attacked by two snakes which he beat off with his paddle. Note that he’s about 8 years old in this story!
I will miss my Dad. We sometimes had a complicated relationship, and we often disagreed on a great many things, but he was a towering example of raw intellectual horsepower, with a near encyclopedic knowledge of history and advertising. It made for super interesting conversations where he always pushed me to think through my own point-of-view, and to “look around the corner” for the real story behind an issue. He was as infuriating as he was fascinating, and I loved him. As I left his hospital room the for the last time I told him that I loved him, and he responded “I love you too, son.”
This story wouldn’t be complete without a comment about my loving fiancé, Rachel. When Erika let me know that my Dad was failing, I was in the middle of some super complicated business issues, and exhausted from several weeks of travel. “I’m sure he’ll be OK…” I remember telling Rachel, and she was having none of it. While she didn’t exactly march me onto the plane to Toronto, she sort of marched me onto the plane to Toronto. In her mind, if he was OK, then the worst thing that would have happened is that I would have seen my Dad. If he wasn’t OK, and I didn’t go see him, I’d regret it forever. She was right, and I owe her a deep debt of gratitude and thanks for putting family first — it royally messed up our Passover Seder and Easter Dinner plans, and she didn’t even bat an eye. I’m pretty sure she actually cancelled all of our plans before I’d even decided to go. Thank you Rachel.
I’d like to end with a “life lesson” my Dad shared with me a number of times, and one which I’ve taken to heart. It’s an interesting story because I’m not sure that my Dad learned as much from it as I have. I’m often described by mentors and bosses as “scrappy” (mostly in positive tones LOL) and I think some of my “scrappiness” comes from the terror of the story I’m about to share. First of all, I think it’s important to know that my Dad always harbored a political fantasy of one day becoming Prime Minister of Canada. It’s one of the first things he told my Mom, and she bought it.
As an early political exercise, he decided to run for class president at Queen’s. He was up against a SUPER POPULAR candidate and was given NO CHANCE of winning. But my Dad put on his scrappy pants and started campaigning door-to-door in the Queen’s men’s residences — at the time they would have been McNeill House, Morris Hall, and Leonard Hall (where I lived for two years). For obvious reasons, he couldn’t go door-to-door in the women’s residences like Ban Righ Hall (where my Mom lived), Adelaide Hall, and Chown Hall. It seemed to be going well, but how can you tell? Anyway, my Dad was in McNeill House, and he’s about to campaign door-to-door down the last hallway on the top floor. He hits the first room and it’s a couple of friends, who invite him in for a beer. He acquiesces, and hangs out with them for the rest of the night, exhausted from the endless campaigning and willing to write off the last 20 rooms. What difference would 20 rooms make anyway?
He lost by 1 vote.
The lesson? In my Dad’s inimitable style, the lesson is: ALWAYS FINISH THE FUCKING HALLWAY.
Bye Dad. Thanks for making me want to be like you, which is why I got into this crazy profession. I’ve g2g now, I have to finish the fucking hallway.
We’re asking that if you want to make a donation, please recognize his work in Canadian advertising by giving in his name to the excellent National Advertising Benevolent Society (NABS).