By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010; C06
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."
Richard Timothy Conroy was born Dec. 20, 1927, in Copperhill, Tenn. He grew up in a mining town, where sulfur fumes hastened the deaths of his mother and grandmother from asthma.
Mr. Conroy's own asthma kept him out of the military during World War II. He worked as a draftsman and installed telephone equipment before graduating from the University of Tennessee, where he met his wife, Sarah Booth.
For several years, Mr. Conroy worked for the Social Security Administration in Tennessee and later for the nuclear plant in Oak Ridge. He moved to Washington in 1956, when he joined the State Department.
After postings to Switzerland, Belize and Austria, Mr. Conroy became a scientific liaison to the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1969, he turned down an assignment to New Zealand, choosing to stay in Washington when his wife's career as a Washington Post reporter and columnist began to flourish.
Mr. Conroy joined the Smithsonian's international affairs office, where he greeted foreign visitors, assisted Smithsonian researchers abroad and helped bring international scientists to Washington. He retired in 1988.
Mr. Conroy became a skilled photographer, particularly of architecture, and his pictures were widely published in art and antiques magazines. His paintings and sculptures were often exhibited at the Franz Bader Gallery in Washington, and he also made the distinctively bold silver-and-gemstone jewelry that his wife was known for wearing.
The Conroys lived for many years in an antiques-filled house on 16th Street NW that became something of a salon of Washington's diplomatic and journalistic sets. Sarah Booth Conroy, who contributed a column on Washington history to The Post until 2001, died in 2009 after 59 years of marriage.
Survivors include two daughters, S. Claire Conroy of Silver Spring and Camille Conroy of Parkersburg, W.Va.; a sister; and a grandson.