James C. G. Conniff, an author and writing professor, died Saturday at his home in Montclair, N.J. He was 92.
At St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, he taught the craft and love of writing to generations of students, many of whom went on to become writers themselves. Even decades later, they often sent letters celebrating “the legendary two-middle-initialed James C.G. Conniff,” as one of them put it.
“He was the best English teacher I ever had–tough, demanding, and inspirational,” one student recalled. Many former students remembered Conniff’s practice of requiring freshmen students to memorize great poems, and they wrote that even decades later the lines of “Lycidas” or “Ode to Autumn” still came to mind.
“No matter where I worked,” wrote another, “I always carried the legacy of an incorrigibly intense Irishman with a Caesar haircut and a quick-triggered impatience for cant. His passion about writing well—and his intolerance for lousy writing—challenges me to this day. Although I’ve forgotten everything I learned about classical Greece, for example, I still remember the Greek word for excrement. He sometimes wrote that word in the margin of a rushed or carelessly written assignment I submitted that had earned his unique displeasure.”
Conniff, who grew up in Woodlawn section of the Bronx, was the author of seven books, including Governor Al Smith, a biography of the first Catholic presidential candidate. He wrote for The Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, and many other magazines.
The Congressional Record credited one of his articles with helping win the first federal funding for research into the causes of Down syndrome. Another of his articles won the American Heart Association’s Howard W. Blakeslee Award for distinguished reporting on stroke prevention. With then-U.S. Congressman Peter W. Rodino, Jr., he successfully campaigned in 1982 for a U.S. first class postage stamp honoring Francis of Assisi on the 800th anniversary of his birth.
In one widely-noted article in the New York Times magazine, Conniff wrote about the decision with his wife Dorothy to raise a Down syndrome child at home with their other children, at a time when institutionalization was standard. He noted the difficulty of seeing Mark as an adult struggling “in a family of writers, to produce copy. Pages of hand-scrawled and sometimes typed letters, all higgledy-piggledy, spill from his fevered efforts to ‘follow in your footsteps, Dad!’” But Conniff also wrote: “For 31 years, Mark has been a central fact of our family life, knitting us together, trying our patience, helping us laugh, probably making us better people than we would have been without him.”
In recent years, Conniff has actively supported Mark’s annual walk-a-thon to raise funds for ARC-Essex, an organization devoted to helping developmentally-challenged women and men become independent members of their communities. This year, the two men together raised more than $6000.
Conniff’s other great cause in recent years has been the preservation of Montclair’s special character. He fought unsuccessfully against the demolition of the Marlboro Inn, and earlier this year against the demolition by Montclair Kimberly Academy of a house on Upper Mountain Avenue that had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He also campaigned to ensure continued funding for the local library at a time when the town had proposed turning the Andrew Carnegie-endowed Bellevue Avenue branch over to developers.
Conniff’s wife Dorothy died in 1999. He leaves his sister Julia Demarski, daughters Susan Manney, Deborah Suta, and Cynthia Cavnar, sons Gregory, Richard, and Mark Conniff; 12 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren. Visiting hours Fri. 2-4 p.m., 7-9 p.m. at the Moriarty Funeral Home in Montclair. Funeral mass 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Cassian’s. In lieu of flowers, please consider donations to Arc of Essex, 123 Naylon Ave., Livingston, NJ 07039 or Lamp for Haiti Foundation, P.O. Box 39703, Philadelphia, PA 19106.