Writer and artist Richard T. Conroy, 82

Richard Conroy worked for State and at the Smithsonian.
Richard Conroy worked for State and at the Smithsonian. (Courtesy Of Camille Conroy)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010

Richard T. Conroy, who recast his early misadventures in the State Department and the Smithsonian Institution in comic memoirs and mystery novels and who had launched a secondary career as an artist and photographer, died Aug. 6 of heart disease at Hillhaven nursing center in Adelphi. He was 82.

Mr. Conroy, who had talents in many fields, led a peripatetic life that took him from the nuclear laboratories of Oak Ridge, Tenn., to the lower rungs of international diplomacy to a senior position at the Smithsonian. During his years as a federal employee, he was known for a wry, irreverent approach to his job that grew more pointed after he retired and began to write about his experiences.

He published two memoirs about his years at the State Department, "Our Man in Belize" (1997) and "Our Man in Vienna" (2000), and three murder mysteries set at the Smithsonian.

"He had a sublime taste for whimsy, refusing to take the seriousness of others terribly seriously, and was a keen observer of the foibles of others," a former Smithsonian colleague, Brian LeMay, wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. Conroy's former co-workers delighted in recognizing former bosses and officious board members among the fictional murder victims he dispatched in cleverly gruesome ways. One of them was sealed inside a cannon on display in a historical exhibit. Three members of an especially self-important committee were bumped off with admirable professional skill: one was freeze-dried, another was mummified and a third was consumed by beetles.

"It's easy to imagine Conroy whiling away his civil service hours by strolling the museums and dreaming up the most fantastical perversions of all the hallowed objects he surveys," critic Pat Dowell wrote in The Washington Post in 1994 of his third novel, "Old Ways in the New World."

In his diplomatic memoirs, Mr. Conroy recounted the mishaps and baffling red tape he encountered abroad. He recalled that during his examination for the State Department, he was asked how he would respond if asked to do something against the law. He said he would find a way in which the action could be seen as legal.

"He's obviously one of us," he said his future State Department bosses concluded.

After an early assignment to Zurich, Mr. Conroy found himself relegated in 1961 to British Honduras (now known as Belize), then considered a Central American backwater. He shipped his beloved Chickering piano to his new post and turned to it when his daughter was ill with a fever of 104.

"I didn't know what to do," he wrote, "so I played Mozart."

In October 1961, Hurricane Hattie blew through Belize, claiming 265 lives and destroying much of the capital city. Mr. Conroy wrote that he and other survivors were reduced to living on the only provisions they could salvage: liquor and baby food.

When his boss temporarily vanished in the storm, Mr. Conroy sent a cable to Washington that had the ring of farce, were it not true: "Consul missing. Have assumed charge. Conroy."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company