by Lynn Meredith
ELBURNâ€”George Bernard Shaw once said, â€œI want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.â€
It’s hard to imagine a person who lived more, worked more, and gave more than Bruce Conley. His death last Saturday from cancer cemented in people’s minds that his life was thoroughly used in ways that will leave a lasting impact on individuals, families and this community.
â€œI’ve always thought of Bruce as George Bailey,â€ said Carol Alfrey Director of Conley Outreach Services. â€œHumble, selfless, able to laugh at himself and totally unaware of the impact he had on others’ lives. And like George Bailey, he truly had ‘A Wonderful Life.’â€
[quote]That impact was repeated over and over by friends and family members since his death on Saturday afternoon. His work as a funeral director for Conley Funeral Home was only part of what he accomplished.
â€œAll those years he wore a suit, but underneath he was a great dad,â€ Ben said. â€œWhen I was young, I was asked if I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I wasn’t sure about that then, but I knew I wanted to be like him. The funeral director was the vehicle, but it was him I wanted to be.â€
Who he was can only be illustrated by the stories and memories people have of him. His sister, Karen Howard, recalled last December when she was rushed to the emergency room and ended up in an intensive care unit.
â€œHe got there not long after I did. Even though he was in chemo himself, he spent the night in my room and wouldn’t go home,â€ she said. â€œThat’s who he was. He did for others.â€
Cheryl Hackbarth received Bruce’s help not only during her husband’s death but years later, when her husband’s car, which she cherished, was totaled in an accident.
â€œHe knew I was upset and asked me what I wanted to do. I jokingly said I wanted a funeral for it. He said, ‘Whatever you want. We’ll say some words.’ He dropped everything,â€ Hackbarth said. â€œHe always put others first.â€
Chris Halsey, who worked with Bruce on developing an innovative graveside sound system, said that Bruce was always a positive person and comforting to people in their time of need and distress.
â€œI always heard the term ‘unconditional love’ for many, many years, but until I met Bruce, I truly didn’t know the meaning of it,â€ he said.
Bruce was a huge part, not only of his own children’s lives, but also the lives of his nephew and niece.
â€œHe was Shelia’s ‘Prince in Shining Armor’. When he would leave on Monday mornings to go back to college, she would sob when he told her goodbye,â€ Howard said. â€œHe also wrote a song â€˜Troubleshooters’ that he and Bill would sing when they went off on an adventure.â€
Helping kids was one of the many dreams that Bruce made come true. Most recently this summer, he was pleased to take part in the grief camp at the Conley Farm, a dream that he was able to see realized.
â€œHe knew that the kids would take to being outside with ample space and the gardens and the creek. They could soak in the sunshine and be able to run around. It would be different than being in rooms,â€ Howard said. â€œHe drew such inspiration from being at the farm.â€
One moment that Howard said has become precious to her is the afternoon right after Bruce’s diagnosis, when she and Bruce walked the creek at Conley Farm, up one side and down the other. They talked and laughed a lot.
â€œI told him that this was the first time we had ever done something like this and that we would have to do it again. You realize that it’s one of those things you’re blessed to have. The creek has a different meaning to me now,â€ Howard said.
Talking and laughing with people was one of Bruce’s greatest strengths. Halsey recalls a time he drove to Chicago with Bruce to get parts for the new sound system.
â€œWe never stopped talkingâ€”about everything. He could converse on any topic. We got so engrossed I missed two exits,â€ Halsey said.
Dave Anderson, mayor of Elburn, said that Bruce’s sense of humor and ability to express himself always impressed him. When Anderson owned the grocery store, Bruce would come in for a snack, and they would have fun between the two of them.
â€œBruce, the undertaker, would ask me how I was, and I’d say ‘Not ready!’ We’d laugh. He had a sense of humor like his father, Chuck,â€ Anderson said.
Ben said that Bruce’s goofy nature and sense of humor was not showcased because of what he did for a living, but it was definitely who he was.
â€œIt’s what I hold in my heart. I was lucky to have him for a dad,â€ Ben said.
Anderson was also impressed with the journal writing that Bruce did on Caring Bridge, the website for cancer survivors.
â€œHe put into words what a lot of us have felt or a lot of us have thought. It is a very unique ability,â€ he said.
Creativity was one thing Bruce had an abundance of, and he used it in every aspect of his life, from playing the trumpet and writing songs to writing books to creating remarkable and meaningful funeral services.
â€œHe was such a visionary. He would just dream,â€ said Cheryl Kainz, Director of Programming for Conley Out Reach.
Kainz, a high school classmate of Bruce’s at Kaneland, came on board at the funeral home and joined in the creativity of making each service special and meaningful to the family. She creates digital scrapbooks that are given to the family.
â€œBruce would say that the funeral is just the band-aid on the grief and that the scrapbooks were the Neosporin. They speeded up the healing process,â€ Kainz said.
Often their ideas would take them late into the night when last-minute inspirations came to them. She remembers when a farmer died, Bruce got the idea to build some barn doors. They stayed up to 2 a.m. making those doors. Another time, they hung animal pelts over the fence for a hunter who died.
â€œIt’s going beyond and making things special. Bruce believed in celebrating their type of life. That’s what it’s about,â€ Kainz said.
So many people emphasized how much they learned from Bruce. Many saw him not only as a friend but as a mentor, including his own son.
â€œHe taught me everything I know. I will take what he imparted and continue his lessons, his passion and his commitment,â€ Ben said.
Bruceâ€™s wife, Kris Conley, said that sometimes they wondered if what they did mattered.
â€œWe knew that it mattered, but still we asked ourselves if we were making any difference,â€ she said. â€œIt was amazing; people did not wait until he died to tell us that it did. They told us before, so that he knew. I think that will help Ben in his work, that what he is doing does make a difference, that how you care for people matters.â€
In the end, those closest to him say that his spirit remained positive and his faith strong. The family is comforted that the important things were said and that little miracles of timing occurred, so that his kids could be home before he passed.
Darlene Marcusson said that she learned so much from Bruce.
â€œWe learned not only how to live well, but also how to die well,â€ she said.
It was Bruce’s wish that memorials be made directly to Conley Outreach to continue the work he started.