Dr. Patrick Thomas “Pat” Conley of Bristol is universally considered as Rhode Island’s most prolific historian and leading disseminator of historical of knowledge concerning the state’s heritage., earning distinction through his pursuit of several different careers as an educator, author, attorney, civic leader, government official, and real estate developer as well as historian. He has written and published more scholarly works pertaining to the history of Rhode Island than any other person, who founded the Rhode Island Heritage Commission as a successor to ri76 for which he served as chairman, both of which preceded the Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission of the state.
Born on June 22, 1938 in Branford, Connecticut, Pat is Rhode Island’s first ever Historian Laureate, having received that honor in July 2013. He is also, or has been, a professor of history and law, an attorney, a political advisor, an author and editor, a real estate developer, and an inductee and long-time president of the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
Family and Early Life
Conley was born in the village of Short Beach in Branford, Connecticut on June 22, 1938, the first of two sons of William Lincoln Conley and Edith May Destastio (a/k/a Dest). His father, a Rhode Island native, was on temporary assignment with the Shell Oil Company to work on the construction of an oil storage facility in the port of New Haven. As a three-month-old infant, Conley came to Rhode Island in late September 1938 in the aftermath of the Hurricane of 1938 to join his father’s family in the South Providence neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island. Thereafter he was raised by his paternal grandparents Patrick and Anne (Corrigan) Conley and then by his aunt Mary Beatrice Conley with assistance from her brother Thomas Eugene Conley and his wife Julia (Maney) Conley, who later composed a detailed genealogy entitled, The Conley Family in America.
In September, 1943 at the age of five Conley entered St. Michael’s Parish School where he was taught by the Sisters of Mercy (R.S.M.). He graduated from the ninth grade in 1952 as class president and then enrolled as a sophomore in Providence’s LaSalle Academy, a college preparatory school operated by the Christian Brothers (F.S.C.). At LaSalle he participated in track and field winning medals in state and class championship meets in the javelin, long jump, high jump, and low hurdles.
Conley entered Providence College, an institution run by the Dominican Fathers (O.P.), in September 1955. There he competed in baseball and track. He majored in History and graduated in 1959 magna cum laude.
During the period of the late 1950s Conley won numerous athletic awards in sandlot or amateur competition including Providence’s Basketball Skills Champion (1956) and Providence Junior Olympic Champion (1957) as the individual high scorer in the city-wide track and field championship meet. He also captained the IBAA baseball team, state independent amateur titlists in 1956, and St. Michael’s parish team, which won the Rhode Island Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) championship in 1957. In 1959 Conley was a medalist in the javelin throw in the New England Collegiate Track and Field Championship Meet.
After graduation from Providence College in June, 1959, Conley attended the University of Notre Dame as a university scholar receiving his master’s degree in History in 1961. In the school year 1961-62 he returned to Rhode Island where he taught Civics and World History and assisted the track coach at LaSalle Academy. In September 1962, he returned to Notre Dame as a teaching assistant to famed church historian Msgr. Philip Hughes. He completed his doctoral level courses in one year with a straight “6” or A+ average and again returned to Rhode Island to begin a thirty-year teaching career at Providence College (1963-1993). In association with his mentor, Rev. Cornelius P. Forster, O.P., he began the graduate school at PC in 1964 and taught some courses at that level every year until his retirement in 1993.
By 1970 Conley completed his dissertation entitled, “Rhode Island Constitutional Development, 1636-1841: Prologue to the Dorr Rebellion” (later expanded and published as Democracy in Decline) and received his Ph.D. By that date he had enrolled in the evening division of Suffolk University Law School in Boston from which he received his J.D. in 1973.
From 1964 onward Conley has held numerous governmental and civic chairmanships and positions–most of them as a volunteer. Conley was Special Assistant to U.S. Congressman, Robert O. Tiernan (2nd District-RI) and chairman of Tiernan’s Advisory Council (1967-1974); policy advisor to Governor Frank Licht, Governor Philip Noel, Lt. Governor J. Joseph Garrahy and Attorney General Herbert F. DeSimone (1966-76), and Chief-of-Staff (1980-81) and principal speechwriter and policy advisor (1977-84) to Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci, Jr. Conley served as Secretary and Delegate to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention of 1973. In that capacity he was the principal sponsor of the constitutional provision on financial disclosure (now Article IV, Section 9) and the amendment setting new procedures for revising the state constitution and convening constitutional conventions (now Article XIV). 2 Among his historical commissions were: Chairman: Rhode Island Bicentennial of Independence Commission and Foundation, ri76 (1974-1977); Chairman of the official state Commission to Commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the U. S Constitution and Bill of Rights (1986-91) and the Bicentennial of Rhode Island Statehood (1990); founder of the Rhode Island Heritage Commission (1977); and founder and chairman of the Providence Heritage Commission (1979-84, 1991-93).
Dr. Conley also served on the Board of Trustees (representing Rhode Island) of the Bicentennial Council of the Thirteen Original States (1970-1992). When that organization evolved into the U.S. Constitutional Council, he became Vice Chairman (1986-87) and then Chairman of the United States Constitution Council (1988-90). Conley was the founder and president of the Bristol Statehouse Foundation (1995-1999); President of the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame (2003–), and Chairman of its Historians’ Committee (1997–). He also served as volunteer Vice President and Director of the Providence Maritime Heritage Foundation (1998-2003). In 1999, he became a member of the Board of Directors of the Heritage Harbor Museum, and has been museum president since 2008. During his tenure that organization has generated a $3.7 million grant-making fund. Conley and his wife Gail were honorary co-chairpersons, patrons, and the largest donors of the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial (2007) on the Downtown Providence waterfront.
Beginning with his first article in the National Civic Review in 1967 Conley has
published over 60 articles in scholarly or historical journals and magazines, served as
substantive editor of more than a dozen scholarly works, and authored or edited 28 volumes in the fields of history, political science, and law.4 A list of his own books are as follows:
1. Proceedings of the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention of 1973. Providence: Oxford Press, 1973.
2. Catholicism in Rhode Island: the Formative Era (with Matthew J. Smith). Providence: Diocese of Providence, 1976.
3. Democracy in Decline: Rhode Island’s Constitutional Development, 1776-1841.
Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1977.
4. Providence: A Pictorial History (with Paul R. Campbell). Norfolk, VA: Donning Company, 1982.
5. The Aurora Club of Rhode Island: A Fifty-Year History (with Paul R. Campbell). Providence: Privately printed, 1982.
6. Rhode Island Profile, Providence: Rhode Island Publications Society, 1982.
7. Fires and Firefighters in Providence, 1754-1984: A Pictorial History of the Providence Fire Department (with Paul R. Campbell). Providence: Rhode Island Publications Society, 1985. Revised edition (1754-2001), 2002.
8. The Irish in Rhode Island: A Historical Appreciation. Providence: Rhode Island Heritage Commission, 1986.
9. An Album of Rhode Island History, 1636-1986. Norfolk: Donning Company, 1986. Reprinted with additions, 1992 and 2000.
10. First in War, Last in Peace: Rhode Island and the Constitution, 1786-1790. Providence: Rhode Island Bicentennial Foundation, 1987.
11. The Colony and State Houses of Rhode Island: An Architectural and Historical Study (with Robert O. Jones and William McKenzie Woodward). Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1988, rev. ed. (1986-2013), 2013.
12. The Constitution and the States: The Role of the Original Thirteen in the Framing and Adoption of the Constitution (with John P. Kaminski). Madison, WI: Madison House Publishers, 1988. Winner of the 1993 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award from the Sons of the American Revolution.
13. The Bill of Rights and the States: The Colonial and Revolutionary Origins of American Liberties (with John P. Kaminski). Madison, WI: Madison House Publishers, 1992. Winner of the 1993 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award from the Sons of the American Revolution.
14. Liberty and Justice: A History of Law and Lawyers in Rhode Island, 1636-1998. Providence: Rhode Island Publications Society, 1998.
15. Neither Separate nor Equal: Legislature and Executive in Rhode Island Constitutional History. Providence: Rhode Island Publications Society, 1999.
16. Rhode Island in Rhetoric and Reflection, Providence: Rhode Island Publications Society, 2002.
17. The Battle of Rhode Island, August 29, 1778: A Victory for the Patriots. Rhode Island Publications Society, 2005.
18. South Providence: The Origins and Heyday of an Ethnic Neighborhood, 1832-1968 (with Paul R. Campbell) Portsmouth, NH: Arcadia Publishing, 2006.
19. The Rhode Island State Constitution: A Reference Guide (with Robert G. Flanders, Jr.) Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007.
20. Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010.
21. Constitution Day: Reflections by Respected Scholars. Providence: Rhode Island Publications Society, 2010.
22. People, Places, Laws, and Lore of the Ocean State. Providence: Rhode Island Publications Society, 2012.
23. Makers of Modern Rhode Island. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012.
24. The Rhode Island Homefront in the Civil War Era (with Frank Williams). Nashua, NH: Taos Press, 2013.
25. Providence Bound on the Fabre Line: Immigration to Rhode Island, 1911-1934 (with William Jennings). Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013.
26. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Rhode Island Series, 3 volumes, Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2011-13. Volume 3 is dedicated to Patrick T. Conley with the following acknowledgment: This final of three Rhode Island volumes can only be dedicated to one person–Dr. Patrick T. Conley, the first historian laureate of Rhode Island. For more than fifty years no one has written more extensively on Rhode Island. His expertise in the political, economic, legal, constitutional, religious, local, and biographical history of Rhode Island is remarkable. His bibliographic knowledge of the Founding Era is extensive and perhaps unmatched. The Ratification Project has been fortunate to have Dr. Conley serve as a consulting editor on all three Rhode Island volumes. His diligence and insightfulness have been a boon to our editorial efforts.
Conley graduated from Suffolk University Law School in 1973, but, because of his public activities such as directing the statewide observance of American Independence, he waited until 1979 to take his bar examination. During his law career, spanning more than a third of a century he developed two specialties: constitutional law and real estate law, especially the law of tax sales.
At the invitation of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, where he has argued over forty appeals, he delivered four Law Day Addresses (1976, 1987, 1993, and 1998), and became one of the prevailing attorneys in the momentous separation of powers case in 1999. His brief was subsequently published as the book Neither Separate Nor Equal: Legislature and Executive in Rhode Island Constitutional History, Providence: Rhode Island Publications Society, 1999–a volume praised by reviewers in such scholarly journals as the American Journal of Legal History and the Rhode Island Bar Journal.
The Rhode Island Bar Association invited Conley to write the centennial history of the Rhode Island Bar (1898-1998). He responded with the volume Liberty and Justice: A History of Law and Lawyers in Rhode Island, 1636-1998, Providence: Rhode Island Publications Society. Conley was also recruited by the editors of the series Reference Guides to the State Constitutions of the United States to write the Rhode Island volume. Conley in turn recruited retired Supreme Court Justice Robert G. Flanders to assist him. In 2007 the pair produced a 155,000-word analysis (longest in the series) of Rhode Island’s constitutional development entitled, The Rhode Island Constitution: A Reference Guide now distributed by Oxford University Press. In a Bar Journal review of that volume attorney and Wheaton College political science Professor Jay S. Goodman, J.D., Ph.D. stated the following: The simple truth is that Conley has created the modern field of Rhode Island constitutional history.”
In the real estate portion of his practice Conley has filed over 4,000 tax lien petitions, argued numerous tax lien appeals before the Rhode Island Supreme Court, acquired ownership of approximately 2,000 parcels of real estate throughout Rhode Island, and earned the reputation as “The Guru of Tax Titles (Rhode Island Lawyer’s Weekly, September 8, 2003) and “The Tax Sale King,” Providence Journal, June 27, 1996)
In 1986 Conley won the first annual writing contest sponsored by the Rhode Island Bar Journal. During the past fifty years he has published more legal articles in the Bar Journal than any other attorney.
Real Estate Developer
Since passing the bar in 1979 Conley has engaged in the practice of real estate law with a specialty in tax-reverted property. By 1987 Providence Business News listed him as Providence’s largest private landowner. He has owned more individual parcels of land than anyone in the history of Providence. Numerous articles have been written about his real estate activities and development projects, especially his unsuccessful attempt from 2004 to 2013 to redevelop the Providence waterfront along Allens Avenue and parallel to Interstate 95. Conley himself has written extensively about his real estate projects both in the local press and in two books of his collected essays.
Master’s AthleteConley, an advocate of physical fitness and preventive medicine, has attempted to continue one aspect of his youthful athletic career by throwing the javelin in master’s (i.e. seniors) track and field meets. From 1979 until his retirement from competition in 2013, he won 38 state and regional championships in the javelin throw including the Canadian National Championship in 1981. He capped his master’s career by gaining All-American designation in 2013 from the United States Track and Field Federation. Conley was also the founding president of the Rhode Island Senior Olympics, Inc. and led that organization from 2004 to 2009. In addition to his javelin career Conley played high-level slow pitch softball from 1959 through 1981. He was the player-manager of the ri76 Seniors and organized Rhode Island’s first statewide senior softball championship tournament in 1976–a 16-team competition won by his ri76 Seniors.
Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame
Conley was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1995.9 A year later
he was invited to join the Hall’s board of directors. In 1997 he established the Historians’ Committee of the board (similar to the “Old Timers” committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame) to induct prominent Rhode Islanders from earlier eras.
In 2003 Conley became president of the Hall of Fame, a post he still holds. His tenure as president has been longer than any of his predecessors. Conley has written two books containing biographical profiles of early Rhode Island Hall of Fame inductees: Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood (2012) and Makers of Modern Rhode Island, 1790-1860 (2013). Both have been published by the History Press.
Conley served with former Rhode Island Governor J. Joseph Garrahy and major contractor William Gilbane as the honorary co-chairman of Rhode Island’s Irish Famine Memorial project on the Providence waterfront. He and his wife Gail were the largest financial contributors to the memorial. In addition, Pat and Gail Conley commissioned and donated to the state a lifesize sculpture of Rhode Island constitutional reformer Thomas Wilson Dorr that now stands at the entrance to the state senate chamber.
Conley and his wife have also made sizeable donations of land to the City of Providence, the City of Cranston, various local land trusts, the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe, and several other non-profit entities.11 Conley, a used and rare book dealer from 1963 to 1997, also made large donations of books and research material to several college libraries including the University of Notre Dame, Johnson & Wales University, Roger Williams University and Providence College, and to the Providence City Archives. Finally the couple have made sizeable donations to several Catholic parishes and religious organizations.
Honors and Awards
Conley’s civic involvement, especially his leadership of several statewide patriotic celebrations including the chairmanships of the Rhode Island Bicentennial of Independence Commission (ri76), the Rhode Island Bicentennial of the Constitution Foundation, the Rhode Island Bicentennial of Statehood Observance, and the Sesquicentennial of the state’s famed Dorr Rebellion, led to awards and recognition from many groups, especially the military. For a select listing of such awards see http://www.drpatricktconley.org”
Conley’s most notable heritage-oriented honor was his designation as Rhode Island’s first-ever Historian Laureate in July 2012. Conley has also been recognized for his oratorical ability and has been selected to give major addresses to various heritage-oriented organizations and groups at their major commemorative events. For a listing of his major keynote speaking engagement see http://www.drpatricktconley.org
Marriages and Family
Conley has been married four times. On February 17, 1962 he married the former Virginia Mary Anderson of Providence. They had four children, all born in November: Patrick, Jr. (1962), Kathleen Mary (1963), Carolyn Anne (1964), and Sharon Christine (1966). Patrick divorced Virginia in 1976. In August 1980 that marriage was annulled by the Catholic Church. Conley’s second marriage was a common law union (recognized in Rhode Island) with Ruth Elizabeth Trainor (who grew up on the same South Providence street as Conley, viz Byfield Street). The couple, who lived together from 1976 to 1981, had two children: Thomas Byfield Conley (1977) and Colleen Ruth Conley (1979).
Conley met his present wife, Gail Catherine Cahalan, on February 12, 1981. During an interruption in their relationship, he married Donna D’Ambra (nee Arruda) of Dartmouth, Massachusetts in a civil ceremony in Kennebunk, Maine on December 31, 1991. The couple lived together for less than two months whereupon Conley returned to Gail and filed for divorce.
He married Gail in a civil ceremony in Sedona Arizona on December 30, 1994. This marriage was blessed by the Catholic Church on September 1, 2009 at St. Romalaud’s Chapel in Matunuck, Rhode Island near the Conley’s oceanfront home in a ceremony presided over by the Reverend Eugene McKenna, Conley’s former teammate and classmate at LaSalle Academy. The marriages to Donna and Gail produced no children, but Conley now has seven grandchildren– Anne, Brendan, and Christine (children of Pat, Jr.), Stephanie and Daniel (children of Kathleen), and James and William (children of Sharon).
Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Law, Who’s Who in American Business.