“Years may wrinkle the skin,” Ullman wrote, “but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”
Today, requiring a walker, Conoly resides in an assisted living center in San Antonio. But in any conversation her words will spill out “I sure do miss Beeville.”
Darlene, or “Dar” as she universally is known, ran a travel agency in town from 1980 until some minor strokes earlier this year forced her to quit.
“That’s not quite right,” she says, “because I’m still booking a few trips from here.”
“Here” is a room tiny even on motel standards, dominated by a double bed and a couch.
“I really do miss Beeville,” she says again. “I had thought I would spend the rest of my life there, because that is where my church is, where my friends are, where my country club is. But, it is not to be.”
FRIENDS SHE has. Publishers, businessmen, community leaders, writers, authors, aviators, astronauts, oilmen, cattlemen – all search for superlatives to describe her.
“She has friends everywhere,” says Kay Past.
That Conoly was more than a travel agent is no better exemplified than the Bee County Chamber of Commerce’s choosing her as the Citizen of the Year in 2008.
Somewhat typically, she wasn’t present at the awards banquet, but on a trip to Mexico, one of her favorite destinations.
“She’s arranged art exhibits, Turkish rug sales at St. Philip’s and often lent many of her artifacts for community events,” Past says.
She also worked at the public library, spent 10 years on the board of the Beeville Independent School District and taught.
“I preferred seventh-grade science,” she says, “because they knew more about science than I did, so I had to come home and do homework every night.”
Her anecdote is in keeping with a philosophy developed at an early age.
“When my daughter is upset, she just cries. When I’m upset, I want things explained to me.”
HER INQUISITIVENESS is concurrent with another Conoly trait, an irrepressible sense of humor. Her laughter flows easily and often, accompanied by a voice that seems to have been developed on the stage.
“Well, I did tap dance with Shirley Temple,” she smiles and chuckles.
“My mother was from this old ranch outside of Bandera that we’ve had since the 1890s” (now the Dixie Dude Ranch, operated by her son, Clay).
“Mother won a beauty contest in San Antonio, which included a screen test in Hollywood. It was the height of the Great Depression. She decided she was going to be a movie star, which is why I was born in Hollywood. My mother met my father, a stunt man, at a Texas picnic out in California.”
Her mother never made it to the big screen and never let her daughter forget it.
“Every time my mother would get mad at me, she would say ‘not only did you do this but you ruined my career.’ And daddy would say, ‘It wasn’t much of a career, if you really want to know. You were eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when I found you.’”
Her mother decided if she couldn’t be the star in the family, Conoly would.
At three years old, she was enrolled in a tap dancing school, where Temple was “their pride and joy.”
Conoly remembers dancing on stage with Temple several times. “It was a big deal.”
SHE WAS graduated from the University of Texas in 1952, not as a dancing major but with a minor in Russian.
“That’s because the professor was very slow, so we all could keep up. And, also because all the cute boys were in the class.”
This city began to enjoy Conoly’s influence when she moved from Bandera to Beeville with her then husband, Dan, who owned a chain of drug stores throughout South Texas.
But her marriage failed.
“I opened a travel agency because it gave me the opportunity to go look at the world, and inexpensively,” Conoly says. “I have been to 180 countries,” she boasts, “but never to Wisconsin or Nebraska or China or New Zealand.”
But she has been to every country in South America.
“I’m crazy about Brazil,” she says. “I’ve been in the jungle and fallen into the Amazon. But they still haven’t gotten it into their heads that women are as important as men.”
Possibly because the country doesn’t know Conoly, who could make things happen by the force of her own personality, that well.
“I hired a tutor to improve her Spanish,” Past remembers.
“That Darlene,” the tutor told Past, “she just butchers Spanish. But she smiles and gets everything she wants.”
Such as convincing St. Philip’s at one time, she says, to support an orphanage in Mexico.
BUT THAT pales to author and retired attorney Richard Rudeloff’s assessment.
“She saved my life,” he flatly states.
In the depths of grief years ago after the death of his second wife, Conoly persuaded Rudeloff to sign up for a tour of Mexico.
“She let me know there was more to life,” he remembers. “I came back a different person.”
Conoly shares a trait common to involved community leaders who have reached a critical age: every answer to a question easily becomes a lesson in local genealogy.
“Why, he’s inherited a bunch of land with Eagle Ford Shale possibilities. As a result, he has every woman in Beeville chasing after him,” she tells of one person she knows.
She still owns the closed travel agency, but it’s up for sale.
“I’m pricing it right. Property values are higher because of Eagle Ford Shale. I have at least two people who are interested.”
She strongly suggests she is getting out of the travel business at the right time.
“Definitely. Definitely. The times have changed. I don’t know if it’s because of the Internet or the perception of what is available there. The days of the travel agent are just about gone.”
What is missing, of course, is her experience.
“You got it, Bubba!”
THE DAY lengthens; the light in her room changes on the momentous of so many years going to so many places. She glances at the wall opposite her bed. A dozen faces stare back.
“I have collected more than 200 masks from Mexico and South America,” she says. “These are my favorites.”
She leans against the headboard. “Isn’t this wonderful? It’s from Morelia, Mexico. I gave it to my daughter as a wedding gift.”
Beside her, on the wall, a painting.
“Can you see who it is by?” Conoly asks. “Look at the lower left hand corner. It’s hard to read: Diego Rivera.”
If she no longer can, or would, journey to Mexico, it has come to her.
“They’ve all moved to San Antonio!” she says.
“Do I travel now?” she asks. “If I can get someone to invite me to lunch. Going to Luby’s for lunch is a pretty big deal.”
She fingers a necklace with a mounted green stone.
“See that? It’s Helenite, made by the volcano.
“Any time you make a transition, it is difficult,” she sighs. But that signature bounce bounces back.
“But you make your own happiness and, by golly, you have to work on it.”
Her blue eyes laugh as she smiles. “Beeville is such an adventure. Tell all my friends I love them and miss them.”
In a few hours, surrounded by masks and paintings and beneath a Mexican headboard, she will travel in dreams, a living example of an old Spanish proverb that decorates one side of Union Station in Washington, D.C.
He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.
“You got it, Bubba!”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.