Before I arrived at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, I knew Bill Conway by reputation, and a few very brief professional acquaintances. I met him on 16 February 2017, less than one month after joining AZA. We were both attending the New York premiere event for “The Zoo”, and Bill gifted me with an extraordinary attention.
We talked at length about zoos, aquariums, and conservation. He reinforced my belief that zoological facilities cannot be the “arks” holding the last of species, standing between them and extinction. He told me that all the zoo animals’ spaces in the world would fit within Brooklyn, so the primary zoo and aquarium conservation role lies in other more important directions.
In what I learned to be a character trait for Bill, he sent me an email the very next day under a subject line in all caps—OUR TALK AT “THE ZOO” LAST EVENING.
It was a warm reflection on our conversation, welcoming me to the community and wishing me luck in my time at AZA—it spoke to Bill’s nature. He was not only an icon in the zoological world, he was a kind, generous, and thoughtful person: a gentleman in every sense of the word.
Since then, I enjoyed more conversations with Bill, and many more email exchanges, all genuine, encouraging, timely, and now, cherished.
In May 2020, in the midst of cascading COVID-related member closures, Bill again reached out. Under the subject line “Short Personal Note” he wrote about the challenges we face as a community and a country; and how we as a community were raising our aspirations despite the headwinds. It was a welcome note of encouragement in a fraught moment.
I replied to Bill with appreciation, sharing my belief in Admiral Thad Allen’s admonition that leaders are responsible for their own morale, but noting that words like this from people of his gravity are a big boost, especially in trying times.
And the last message I received from Bill was on 24 January 2021. The subject line was “The Human Habitat”, and the message was brief:
From the air. Of interest. Bill Conway
It attached a pdf file of select images from the Yann-Arthus Bertrand project Earth seen from the Sky.
I remember thinking how interesting it would be to talk with him about these images, but something urgent got in the way. How tragic that now seems.
Reading the reactions to Jim Breheny’s announcement of Bill’s passing to the AZA Directors’ Network, reflects this person’s near supernatural place in our lives and profession. He was an icon; a pioneer; a hero; a giant; and a champion. He was admired; influential; and creative. He displayed foresight; ingenuity; patience; and humility. He created a legacy of place in an institution; and even more so, in people, as a generous mentor and towering inspiration.
We all work and live to make a difference, and we all do, to the limits of our abilities and resources. Sometimes, people escape the gravity of their own circumstances. They jump to an entirely new orbit of excellence, raising the standard for others. William G. Conway was one of those, and as a number of people have noted, we are all better for it.
Dan Ashe is the President and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums
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