John Conover’s passing will leave a huge gap in Charlottesville’s civic life and in the lives of his family and friends.
But, oh, the gaps he filled during his long career of public and professional service.
To many residents, his most visible role may have been as a member of Charlottesville City Council, 1980-1984, where he voted for the then-controversial effort to entice the Omni Corporation to build a hotel and conference center to anchor one end of the Downtown Mall. The move was contentious because it involved a publicly subsidized incentive package. But as events have so clearly proved, that effort benefitted Charlottesville by helping attract investments to the Mall and the downtown area in general.
As a lawyer, Mr. Conover served for more than two decades with the Legal Aid Justice Center, working on tenant-landlord disputes and other cases.
He helped establish the Rivanna Trails Foundation — and did much of the physical labor.
He served on the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District when Charlottesville rejoined it in 2006.
He supported the Blue Ridge House, a Region Ten rehabilitation center for those recovering from the effects of mental illness.
He was a member of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society right up to his death.
Mr. Conover also became chairman of the city Democratic Party in 1988 — in a vastly different era. Charlottesville had a viable Republican Party, so debates and challenges between the two parties were more frequent. Such interactions were substantive and could be hard-hitting, but were conducted with more respect than most of today’s partisan battles.
They also often functioned in the way good competition is supposed to function — by spurring opponents to improvements. One vignette from a 1980 neighborhood meeting for council candidates illustrates that.
The moderator asked all six candidates what they would do to ensure that Black residents were better represented in city government, The Daily Progress reported. Mr. Conover said he would call Democratic councilors the next day and urge them to appoint two Black members to the School Board. A Republican candidate piped up and said, “Well, we’ll certainly call them up, too.”
Mr. Conover had arrived in Charlottesville in the early 1970s to attend the University of Virginia, and he was part of the protest culture of the time.
He and his wife, Virginia Daugherty, worked with a company called Black Flag Press. “If you wanted to print a protest flyer or a newsletter, you went to Black Flag,” recalled Jim Heilman, now secretary of the Albemarle County Electoral Board.
The company later became Papercraft, and the couple purchased it and ran it for 24 years in downtown Charlottesville.
Mr. Conover not only filled numerous civic roles, he also was a cherished friend and the sort of character who could bring people together simply through the force of his personality and joie de vivre.
“He had a Gandalfian way of showing up in places you never expected just when you needed someone to dispense some wisdom or take you on an adventure,” said Angela Ciolfi, executive director at Legal Aid.
When in 2002 Mr. Conover was honored as a Charlottesville Bridge Builder — which recognizes people who brilliantly bridge social, racial and economic gaps — former Councilor Mary Alice Gunter put it this way: “John occupies a no-bragging zone. He just builds the bridge, links the people and moves on to the next challenge.”
If he couldn’t fill gaps with his own service and energy, he bridged them so that others could connect in powerful, constructive ways. No one else was quite like him. He was irreplaceable and will be deeply missed.
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