Full circle: Conover an activist indoors and out
"It was sexy, powerful, intriguing, intellectually interesting. It was a politicized world. Things were happening." This is John Conover speaking– but he's not describing today's zesty presidential contest.
The former Charlottesville vice-mayor is remembering the heady '60s, when he came of age "in the shadow of the mushroom cloud and Vietnam." Energized and involved, in the midst of all the excitement, Conover migrated to Virginia because it seemed a reasonable compromise "between Arkansas and New Jersey," where he had grown up.
The 1971 move didn't derail his involvement in political causes. Once here, he and his wife, Virginia Daugherty, founded a printing business they called Black Flag Press. Lest there be any doubt, Conover explains, "A black flag is a symbol of anarchy."
But did they actually advocate civil disobedience? "Let's just say we were more of an alternative press in those days," he demurs.
The business morphed into Papercraft Printing– as much to distinguish it from the exterminator company of the same name as to disavow any political implications. Then, after 27 years, Conover sold the business, took a long journey to India, and came back to launch a new career as an attorney with Legal Aid.
Through it all, the former city councilman has maintained his commitment to political and community activism. Most recently he has spearheaded creation of the Rivanna Trails Foundation and its goal for a footpath encircling the city along the Rivanna River.
"One fault people often cite about Charlottesville," Conover says, "is the absence of a beach or lake. But in truth, Charlottesville is defined by running water." He calls the plan for the trail– hatched with former mayor Francis Fife and others one day over lunch– "just a perfect idea. It has a holistic aspect– a circular walk around Charlottesville– but it's doable."
These days Conover leavens that outdoor "doing" with his Legal Aid work, which he relishes because "it embodies everything I like– working with smart, funny people engaged and proud of what they do." And– perhaps a nod to his Black Flag days– "It's a great contrast to Papercraft, where the customer was always right. Sometimes it's contentious, and you get to go to court and argue."
But the political fray is still Conover's first love. "Local politics has all the flavor of national and international politics: petty jealousy, overarching ego, dishonesty, humor, people forming temporary alliances, always shifting and intriguing."
And most of all, "It's fun!" he says.
Summing up his long fascination with his adopted city, Conover says, "What I like best about Charlottesville is that it's full of 'competent eccentrics'."
He doesn't mention any names, although many immediately spring to mind, not least among them this Black-Flag waving anarchist, activist, energetic trail builder.
What brought you here? Undergraduate school the first time. A bread truck the second time.
What's worst about living here? Decline of the erotic
Favorite hangout? C&O
Most overrated virtue? Fussy table manners
What about you would surprise people? I have a double-jointed tongue.
What would you change? I would prefer to be bilingual.
Proudest accomplishment? Consistency in love and community
Your most annoying trait? I mumble in short conversations.
Whom do you admire? Francis Fife and Bill Clinton
Favorite book? Love in the Time of Cholera
What causes you to rant? Self-centeredness in educated people
21st century pro? Better medical science
21st century con? Everything seems to be too close– the exotic thrives on distance.
What do you drive? Honda Civic Hybrid & red pick-up
Current disc in the car? West Side Story
Next journey? Holland and England
What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? Cancer
What do you regret? Not enough focus
Favorite comfort food? Chicken livers and onions with fresh tomatoes and buttered ears of corn
What's always in your fridge? Pickled herring in sour cream
Must-see TV? The Daily Show
Favorite cartoon? The Far Side
Your idea of a perfect day? Some competition, some reading, some affection
Walter Mitty fantasy? Jazz or blues singer
Who'd play you in the movie? Bill Murray
Most embarrassing moment? Fortunately, these memories mellow with age.
Best advice you ever got? Be faithful
Favorite bumper sticker? "We put your feet back on the street"– Bob's Bail Bonds
John Conover– with his wife, Virginia Daugherty, and daughter Joey– pose with presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry at a 2002 benefit at Metro.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO