ST. PETERSBURG — As a community arts leader, John Conlon had courage, conviction and connections. He wanted to infuse local theater with incoming young people, and to ensure they had places to develop their craft.
He always seemed to draw the right cards to achieve those goals and knew just how to play them, connecting people in a web of arts organizations. Since moving to St. Petersburg in 2003, the former University of Massachusetts professor seemed to have met everyone.
He had lent his talents to several local theater organizations, and for the past three years had served as president of St. Petersburg City Theatre. Wherever he volunteered, more people followed.
Dr. Conlon accomplished numerous feats over several years without an activist's edge or a philanthropist's pockets. He simply followed his heart, and what he touched grew.
"He was the grass roots effort to band people together for arts advocacy," said Elizabeth Brincklow, manager of the city's arts and international relations office. Thanks in part to Dr. Conlon's networking, including a meeting with then-Mayor Rick Baker, the 2-year-old St. Pete Arts organization got its start, Brincklow said.
Dr. Conlon's focused advocacy also launched a Shakespeare project out of his students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he taught Chaucer, Dickens and Milton in semi-retirement.
His hands-on passion for theater helped save the former St. Petersburg Little Theatre on 31st Street S, which nearly closed its doors after 85 years in 2009 due to financial problems.
A pair of youth training programs Dr. Conlon helped develop began to see dividends just in time.
"Before 2008, we had no youth programs at all," said Deborah Kelley, the theater's executive director. "Now they are a third of the budget."
Students idolized Dr. Conlon, who oversaw Petite Theatre and Pizzaz Song & Dance Troupe, said Kelley, 50.
He also had a hand in changing the theater's name.
Both Dr. Conlon and Kelley wanted to drop the diminutive "Little" from the name for years, but had been unable to persuade the board. Then Kelley conceived changing "Little" to "City" and phoned Dr. Conlon excitedly.
He urged her to take it to the board. The name changed a month later.
John Conlon was born in Lowell, Mass., and lived in Bridgewater and Nahant, Mass. He earned a doctorate in literature at Tufts University and taught for years at the University of Massachusetts.
He and his wife, Simonne, were married 30 years and brought up two children.
The marriage ended in divorce. Dr. Conlon moved to St. Petersburg in 2003 with Margaret Musmon, a former colleague at the University of Massachusetts who had taught dance.
Dr. Conlon and Musmon enjoyed quiet evenings the most, Musmon said.
"He made the salad; I cooked dinner," said Musmon, 66. No plans, no rush, no television.
The couple inspired each other to dust off their musical instruments by joining the Second Time Arounders, an adult marching band. Dr. Conlon played the mellophone in the 2008 Macy's Christmas parade.
He acted or directed shows at American Stage Theatre Company, the Studio@620 and St. Petersburg City Theatre. He donated any paychecks he earned back to the theaters, Musmon said.
He had recently started teaching a pilot program for teenagers at St. Petersburg City Theatre but had to stop after three sessions, when leukemia diagnosed in May worsened.
"If you asked him how he was," Kelley said, "he would say, 'I feel fine, but I'm not fine.' That was it. Then it was, 'What are you up to?' or the name change or something else."
He adjusted to the changes in his health but was never resigned to them, his companion said. Dr. Conlon died Aug. 31.
He was 66.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.