A Life: Joyce Conroy; ‘She was the eternal hostess’

Joyce Conroy flanked by her sons, Brian, left, and Michael. Her daughter, Kathy, is at right as the family celebrates Michael's 1996 wedding.

Joyce Conroy flanked by her sons, Brian, left, and Michael. Her daughter, Kathy, is at right as the family celebrates Michael's 1996 wedding. Courtesy photograph

Joyce Conroy in 1972 with her children, Kathy, upper left, Brian, in hat, and Michael. Lucky, the family's Cocker Spaniel-Poodle mix, is center stage.

Joyce Conroy in 1972 with her children, Kathy, upper left, Brian, in hat, and Michael. Lucky, the family's Cocker Spaniel-Poodle mix, is center stage. Conroy family photograph

By TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-21-2023 9:57 AM

Joyce Conroy wasn’t just the life of the party. She had often created it in the first place.

Take the wedding reception of her youngest son, Michael, in 1996, staged in the dining hall at his Connecticut prep school alma mater, Avon Old Farms. Logistics and expense combined to prevent a full bar, so alcoholic beverages were limited to beer and wine.

Knowing her friends would crave mixed drinks, Joyce Conroy parked her SUV next to the hall’s side door. The vehicle’s back was packed with cups, ice, hard liquor and mixes. A table was set alongside.

“Standard Joyce,” Michael Conroy said of his mother, a 30-year Upper Valley resident who died on April 12. “She was the eternal hostess.”

Michael and his older brother, Brian, played football at Dartmouth College, where their father, Pete Conroy, had been a starting lineman in 1954. Tradition dictated that after a game, players put back on the jackets and ties they’d worn to Memorial Field and meet family and friends outside the locker rooms in Davis Varsity House.

The Conroys kept an eye out for young men of modest means and without family in attendance. They’d sweep them into an impromptu traveling party headed for dinner at the Hanover Inn or Jesse’s, with no question of who was paying the bill.

Some nights, the group would wind up at the Beta Theta Pi house, where the Conroy boys were fraternity brothers. Pete and Joyce interacted easily with their sons’ friends, to the point that they sometimes moved independently throughout the Greek scene.

“On Saturday night of Winter Carnival during my freshman year, I went to five or six different parties and saw my parents at all but one,” Michael said with a chuckle. “They were social animals who really cared about people and loved a good time.”

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Joyce Selma Swenson grew up in West Hartford, Conn., as a Swedish Lutheran and the daughter of a lumber salesman. She overcame polio as a child with the help of experimental treatments that never became widely sanctioned. Brian Conroy said the experience left his mother with a sense she’d been given a second shot at life and to enjoy it to the fullest.

Joyce graduated from Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt., in 1959. She worked in accounting in New York City for a couple of years before meeting her future, Irish Catholic husband on a blind date to watch visiting Dartmouth play in the Yale Bowl. At the appointed pick-up time, Joyce was still at the hairdresser’s, so Pete roared in and swept her away, leaving her planned outfit in her closet.

The couple married in September 1963 and spent their honeymoon in Hanover, staying at the Chieftain Motor Inn so Pete could attend his alma mater’s daily football practices.

The Conroys began family life in West Hartford, Conn., but soon moved slightly west to Avon, from where Pete commuted and Joyce took care of their three kids. Once the youngsters were all in school, however, Pete went into private practice and Joyce served as his secretary, paralegal, bookkeeper “and sometimes therapist,” Michael noted.

When not on the legal treadmill, the Conroys took the family to the Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow, Vt., often enough that Kathy said she felt she’d memorized every inch of the 2½-hour trip on Interstate 91. Visits were also frequently made to Ivy League towns, where Pete, nicknamed “Cube” for his stocky, gridiron physique, cheered his beloved Big Green.

Hanover and the Upper Valley also became familiar to the Conroy kids, not only from trips for games but for their father’s class reunions. Dartmouth didn’t become coeducational until the early 1970s, but Joyce became longtime friends with many of her husband’s classmates and their spouses. During later years, she would be crucial in organizing their gatherings throughout New England.

The children weren’t merely passengers on their parents’ train, however. The couple’s daily work schedules were blocked out for all the kids’ sports games, and they tailgated everywhere from obscure back fields in the woods to the shadows of massive Harvard Stadium.

Joyce’s loud exhortations became legend, and Brian would chuckle when he heard them during pregame warmups at Memorial Field. Pete, whom Brian Conroy laughingly described as “jovially aggressive,” had usually made the acquaintance of everyone within conversational earshot by halftime.

The Conroy home was the designated hangout spot during childhood and high school, and an assortment of young characters could often be found playing cards or watching football in a house where the doors were never locked. One night, a nearby party was broken up by the police, sending teenage revelers in all directions. Brian couldn’t locate one friend, until he went home and discovered him sitting with Joyce, enjoying chocolate chip cookies.

“I knew I’d be safe here,” the boy explained.

Pete had worked to put himself through The Loomis Institute in Windsor, Conn. and Dartmouth, and he and Joyce were determined that their children would have both the grades and the means to attend college without aid. Unlike many neighbors, they didn’t own luxury cars or a beach house, and their willingness to help extended family members with legal matters ate into billable hours.

The parents emphasized not only the value of education but the benefit of calculated risks. Joyce’s favorite song to play on the stereo system was “To Dream the Impossible Dream” from the musical “Man of La Mancha.”

“My mom really encouraged us to try anything,” Brian Conroy said. “Don’t hesitate to attack something new. So much of my life was shaped by that attitude. My parents were very conservative, but they had a hippie-like mentality when it came to raising kids.

“If you really wanted a candy bar for breakfast, well, why not? What a cool way to grow up.”

The couple’s work with the Democratic Party and their membership in the nearby Golf Club of Avon meant they often hosted parties at a house their children described as far from ostentatious. Brian recalled waking to the sound of guffaws and ice tinkling in glasses, and Michael said, in later years, he’d dress as a waiter and serve drinks for laughs and tips.

Tops on the social calendar was the family’s annual Christmas party, which was open to all comers. Joyce was somehow simultaneously both in the kitchen and moved from group to group, usually leaving laughter in her wake. Cube would be whipping up servings of powerful eggnog, and that guy who always showed up with a trumpet might be blowing away like a wannabe Dizzy Gillespie.

“It was lunacy,” Brian Conroy said. “But they loved the ceremonies of the times, the 1960s and ’70s, playing LPs and entertaining people and helping people. When they sold that house, there were 100 glasses from the golf club in there.”

Joyce and Pete moved to Wilder in the early 1990s, and when Pete died in 1994, his wife was understandably bereft. Michael, studying at the nearby Vermont Law School, moved into her condominium to keep her company for her first year alone. During that time, Joyce took a job at the Norwich Inn, working its front desk or hostessing at its adjacent brew pub.

“There were always people hanging around, and that fit her personality,” Brian Conroy said, noting that his mother discovered Dartmouth and New England connections with many guests. “She loved how she’d been welcomed into the Upper Valley community, and she wanted to do that for others. She was a surrogate mother and grandmother to a number of people.”

As far as her children know, however, Joyce Conroy tailgated at only one wedding.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story listed the wrong high school alma mater for her husband, Peter. He attended The Loomis Institute in Windsor, Conn.