In Remembrance: Caldwell veterinarian was a born mentor

Jerry Conger spent countless hours in Caldwell and Vallivue elementary schools helping kids hone their reading skills. He was the prime mover in a Caldwell Rotary project that provides dictionaries to third graders in 17 local schools. After his death June 27, the club renamed the effort the Jerry Conger Rotary Dictionary Project.

When Jerry Conger donned his blue Caldwell Rotary Club apron, it was truth in advertising.
“Service Above Self,” the logo proclaims.
The retired veterinarian, tireless volunteer and passionate lifelong learner died June 27 at the age of 82. Nearly two months later his family, friends and varied community groups are still trying to find ways to fill his many roles.
“My new job is trying to get all of his jobs off to other people who are picking up the things he was doing,” said Jerry’s wife of 57 years, Shirley Conger.
Those things include serving as water master for their subdivision, volunteering at several local schools and leading the charge on Rotary projects including the Caldwell Night Rodeo taco booth and distribution of dictionaries to every third grader in 17 local schools.
“He … was the Rotarian of the Year twice, though we know he could have been honored every year,” said Leora Summers, whom Conger sponsored as a new Rotarian 14 years ago, with a new membership classification that was dear to Conger’s heart: Volunteer.
Other titles Conger earned could fill a wall with plaques, among them: Exalted Ruler of the Elks, Scoutmaster, Idaho Veterinarian of the Year, president of the Idaho State Veterinary Association, regional director of the American Animal Hospital Association, winner of the 2008 Idaho Veterinary Medical Association Presidential Citation Award.
But it was his personal touch in one-to-one efforts, many without formal recognition, that helped make him stand out.
“Jerry made sure one of the older members (age 102) got to Rotary every week, and he took him to Idaho Athletic Club every week to work out,” Summers said.
And he kept scrupulous records of his time reading with local schoolkids to make sure each child got his or her fair share, Van Buren Elementary School Principal Melissa Langan said.
“He was so many things,” Shirley Conger said. “He was a mentor to his children, to young veterinarians, to schoolchildren. He was a neighbor, a true friend … just giving.”
Heartfelt letters, notes and personal contacts have been flooding in since Jerry Conger died.
“He touched so many lives,” Shirley said, “and they all want to touch back.”
Jerry Conger was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1928, in Covina, Calif. Spending time on a New Mexico ranch and a Colorado dairy helped set his interest in veterinary medicine, and he enrolled in pre-veterinary studies at Colorado Agricultural and Mechanical College, which soon became Colorado State.
It was at Colorado A&M that Shirley Lawrenson met the “good-looking redhead” over coffee at the student union. They married in September 1953 and had four children: Steven, Kenneth, Jeffrey and Linda.
“One’s an avalanche expert, one’s an M.D. and military history expert, one’s a graphic designer and race car photographer, and one’s a swim coach and works with national paralympics,” Shirley said. “Our children are all totally different, and that’s what he encouraged.”
A man of many interests, Conger was passionate about whatever he was doing at the time, she said.
“He enjoyed all people,” Shirley said. “It didn’t make any difference who they were or where they came from. He drew his strength from being around people.”
And he was constantly learning, she said, from boning up on hydrology and geology to understand their subdivision’s water system to studying history, particularly the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Civil War.
“He mentored a young boy at Purple Sage Elementary who wanted to clone a dinosaur,” Shirley said. “So Jerry had to learn about dinosaurs and DNA.”
And it wasn’t just Conger’s mind that was active.
“He loved golf and loved skiing more than anything,” Shirley said. “The perfect day was the day he could do both, which he did.”
He relished exploring Idaho’s outdoors, especially the Sawtooths. As a Scoutmaster, he led the boys on 50-mile hikes through those mountains.
And he found a way to extend that experience to local girls, too.
“I liked doing the same stuff that my brothers did,” said Linda Conger, the youngest of the clan and the only daughter. “So he started a group that was just dads and daughters, and we would go backpacking.”
More recently, father and daughter shared a passion for Civil War history, touring battlefields and other historic sites. They had planned another trip in May 2012.
Conger had many activities planned for the coming days, weeks and months. And on his last day, there was no inkling that he wouldn’t be around to do them, his wife said.
“We went out to breakfast that morning and he chopped some limbs off a tree” and did other chores, Shirley said. “He thought about going to play golf but thought he’d done enough for the day. He went to bed and just didn’t wake up.”
That peaceful passing was “perfect for him” but a blind-side blow to the many who loved him, she said.
“Because it was so sudden, I don’t think it’s really hit yet,” Shirley said. “That whole first week all I did was cancel things for him.”
As owner/operator of Conger Small Animal Hospital for 29 years, Conger was active in the Caldwell community. But when he sold the clinic in 1987, his passion for volunteering really took off.
He threw himself into Rotary Club efforts and became a frequent presence in Caldwell and Vallivue schools. At Caldwell’s Van Buren Elementary, “he was by far our most committed volunteer” and helped bring in others to help, Principal Langan said.
“He started out volunteering in a second-grade classroom, listening to kids read,” she said. “But you know Jerry, that wasn’t enough for him.”
He extended his efforts to the third grade, where Langan was teaching at the time. After a few years, he said he could squeeze in a chess club for third-graders. Then he followed up with those young players as they progressed into fourth and fifth grades, she said.
And he was ever ready to do more, Langan said.
“He was always coming into the office and saying, ‘all right, Melissa, what else are we going to do? I have one more afternoon after Rotary. What are you going to hook me up with?”

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