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Repost 2019: RIP John Conrad, understanding "Why bad things happen to good people"

John Conrad, 1956-2019

The Railroad Engineer

March 17, St. Patrick's Day, was John Conrad's birthday, and I am reposting this on what would have been his 66th birthday.

John passed away in 2019 after a battle with ALS, but I am placing what I wrote three years ago for a few reasons: So that people can continue to find it by searching for it, and to remember the story of an accomplished, caring man.

This is long, and since I am Irish and verbose, perhaps that is appropriate for St. Patrick's Day. It is what I thought of at the time of John's passing.

February 17, 2019 -- no longer accessible

… Lou Gehrig, Pete Duranko, Ray Kist, and John

One of the most difficult questions in life is trying to answer the question about why bad things happen to good people. More than 35 years ago, a rabbi attempted to answer that question because of his own experience. He explored that and gave me insight, but could not really address the core of the dilemma.

No human being can.

That conundrum came to mind for me because of the challenge that faced John Conrad, who last year was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease]. John passed away from it last week at the youthful age of 62, and I again had to think about why a wonderful man like him would have to battle such a debilitating disease.

John was indeed a good man — personally, professionally, and spiritually. As a father, husband, son, brother, civil engineer, community leader — he was the essence of a good guy. He served his community and his church, and he taught his children the lessons that he had learned in life. Nothing is as valuable as that.

Nevertheless, the question is why does God allow people to contract such horrible diseases when they are very good people?

First, a little about John and ALS, looking at a few others who have been afflicted with it. Then, a little about the conundrum.

Going back to the Lilly Raiders

John was blessed to have been born into a wonderful family, with his dad, Francie, and mother, Dorothy Mae, providing a home filled with love, togetherness, laughs, motivation, and so important, God. He grew up in an area outside Lilly — a small community in Western Pa. — called Dutchtown [for some unknown reason].

He is a second cousin, once-removed, to me and my siblings, from what I can tell of the family genealogy, but I did not really know him well until he was in eighth grade. While I was attending Penn State, I was also coaching a grade school football team called the Lilly Raiders. Our teams were very talented in those years, winning two consecutive championships and going undefeated each season.

I am recounting this because what happened in 1969 -- almost 50 years ago -- reflected so much John’s approach to life, even at a young age.

As for the Raiders, while we showed promise -- particularly in the offensive line -- in our third year, our team needed the outstanding running back that we had featured in the first two seasons. On the night that we gave out equipment, who showed up but John and his brother, Mark. That was a surprise since he had not played before [later told me that his mother did not want him to, but he begged her incessantly].

Question reflected his approach to life

The most memorable point for me was when I asked him, “What position do you want to play?”

His answer: “I’ll play anywhere.”

And that was his approach in life. He would take on any challenge in life and tackle it just the way he did football. He became our star running back that year and we won another championship while again finishing our season undefeated. We won the championship game 2-0, so it was a tough battle with St. Joe's of Portage.

In the all-star game two weeks later, John ran wild after we installed the Single-Wing, and we won 20-0.

However, his “I’ll play anywhere” philosophy was the way that he approached life, with tenacity and enthusiasm and dedication, and that was reflected in his studies at Penn State, in his professional life, and with his loved ones.

John climbed up railroad bridges until he was beyond the age of 50 because that was the only way he could determine exactly what needed to be done. He approached that professional part of his life like he did football: work hard, do your best, and do whatever it is that has to be accomplished.

Things do not always go your way … but you keep on plugging.

Early life

John played football in high school, but he was focused on his academics. He wanted to be an engineer, and he earned a civil engineering degree at Penn State, the first of quite a few in his family who would eventually enter PSU. As a civil engineer, he spent much of his career providing consulting to those who build and maintain railroad bridges and lines. He inspected those bridges personally.

Just four years ago, we talked at his parent’s home after Dorothy Mae had passed away, he recounted stories to me about how he was, even in his 50s, still climbing up underneath and evaluating the structures.

That is the way he was raised, too. One of seven children — Jean Ann (Beck) first, then John, Mark, Charlene, Mary Rose (Adams), DeSales (Wertz), and Eleanor (Kearney) — who were taught the value of hard work. Francie spent his career working in the car shops of Bethlehem Steel in Johnstown’s Franklin Mills while Dorothy Mae was a registered nurse for years.

However, Dorothy Mae also became a great creator of wedding cakes, and the children helped in that endeavor, working hard with their mother to achieve success. The kids also had grass to cut and a garden to plant and vegetables to can. That work ethic of the parents carried over to the children, who were also taught how important education was to them.

At Penn State, John met Elaine Boal of Tyrone, who was studying to be a teacher. They married more than 42 years ago at St. Matthew’s Church in Tyrone. I remember attending with my father and brother, and I just recall how happy a wedding it was. You could tell that they had a special relationship.

Family life and careers

John started his career as an engineer in 1979 and worked until he could no longer because of ALS. Elaine worked as a teacher and retired in 2015 as a middle school instructor in the Tyrone School District.

Together, they raised three beautiful children: Heather [Lancaster], Byron, and Tyler. Now, three grandchildren have been added: Mae. Anna, and Julia Lancaster.

After Dorothy Mae’s funeral in 2014, I watched at the dinner how John and Elaine took their children and grandchildren and sat together, and their closeness and love was apparent. It was really impressive to see.

Elaine retired as a teacher at the Tyrone Middle School in 2015. She had started there as a kindergarten teacher, according to a retirement story about her at the time. Then, she and John moved to West Virginia for a while as he pursued his engineering work with the railroads.

Elaine earned a master’s from West Virginia University and did substitute teaching at the time as they were starting their family. They then moved back to Tyrone where John continued his career and Elaine returned to Tyrone as a teacher.

And there they continued to build a close, loving family.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

When John was diagnosed with ALS a little over a year ago, I reflected back on what I knew about it. Known to many as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” I had researched it for a column that I had written in the mid-1990s.

Lou Gehrig was one of the great baseball players of all time, known as an Ironman in the 1930s because he had set a record in playing 2,130 consecutive games for the New York Yankees. Then, in his mid-30s, he began to tire and his ability diminished noticeably.

At the age of 36, he was diagnosed by physicians at the Mayo Clinic with ALS. What they told his wife was similar to what I thought about when I learned of John’s diagnosis:

“The prognosis was grim: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy less than three years … the cause of ALS was unknown, but it was painless, noncontagious, and cruel; the motor function of the central nervous system is destroyed, but the mind remains fully aware to the end.”

This was so sad for Lou Gehrig — and for John Conrad — who were both good men.

Pete Duranko and Ray Kist

More than ten years ago, I sat at a dinner table in Johnstown with Pete Duranko, who had been an outstanding football player for Notre Dame and the Denver Broncos after graduating from what is now Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown. Pete was diagnosed with ALS in 2000, and he battled it for 11 years before passing away.

Pete was known as Diesel when he was a running back in high school because he ran everybody over like a freight train. I told him that I remembered attending the Big 33 all-star high school game in Hershey before Pete enrolled at Notre Dame. He wanted to know everything that I remembered about it. I told him I remembered primarily one thing: The game plan for the team from Western Pa. was simple: Pete Duranko right and Pete Duranko left. The QBs just handed off the ball to Pete, and he just ran over everybody as the West won something like 39-0.

However, what I also remember about that night was that Pete talked about the disease and how it was affecting him. He said that he was not wearing a tie because he could not longer tie one. The feeling in his fingers was leaving, though he was able to use his silverware to eat. It was such a shame to see this strong, virile guy now talking about losing all of that.

Pete passed away in 2011 after battling the disease for more than a decade.

In the mid-1990s, I wrote a newspaper column about one of my former colleagues on a college athletic staff. Ray Kist was a native of Johnstown, and he was the athletic trainer at St. Francis College in the 1970s when I was coaching football there with Art Martynuska. He was also teaching at St. Aloysius School in Cresson, so he was holding down two jobs.

Ray had a great disposition, a laid-back guy who related so well to the young people — and to the coaches. He finally was given an opportunity in the late 70s to become a full-time athletic trainer at Niagara University in Western New York. He worked his way up to head trainer, a job that he had held for 16 years at Niagara before being stricken with ALS.

I talked with Ray via phone about how he was coping with things. He talked practically and philosophically about the disease and about life. It was sad, particularly since he had a wife and daughter and was struggling. However, people enjoyed the story because it discussed Ray’s courage and his approach to life.

Ray passed away in 1995 at the age of 46.

Before talking to Ray, I had researched the disease very thoroughly, so I knew what he was facing, what Pete had to confront, and what John had ahead of him when he was diagnosed. There is no cure for ALS even today after tens of millions of dollars of research. Making it even more challenging is that researchers still have no idea what causes it more than 80 years after Gehrig’s diagnosis. They have some ideas but have not been able to make progress on identifying the cause, which is key to fighting it.

Harold Kushner on “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People”

In 1983 a book reached the best-seller list, but I did not read it until a decade later. Harold Kushner was a rabbi whose son was afflicted with a horrific disease. I wrote about this previously on this blog when I confronted the idea that not everything that occurs in life is because of “God’s will.”

From the blog:

“Kushner and his wife were the parents of a young boy whom they loved tremendously. However, when he was 3-years-of-age, he was diagnosed with Progeria, which is a disease in which people age prematurely, ten years for every one physically. He died when he was 14 but looked like he was in his 60s. His father was then pastor of Boston Temple Israel of Natick, Mass."

That experience devastated Kushner, and despite his strong spiritual beliefs, he started to question God. Why should God punish him after all he had done to give solace to others, to provide directions to others, explaining to them what God wanted them to do with their lives?

Kushner continued to ask, “Why me, God?” Finally, he had read enough and prayed about it that he realized that giving Aaron such a horrible disease was not God’s will.

The most important part of this message is what I deciphered as Kushner’s major theme of the book, though he did not express it in this way.

God created nature and let it take its course.

Why are children born with birth defects? Why do babies die in infancy? Why do mothers suffer miscarriages? Why are people killed in a hurricane, in an accident, in war, or in a random act of violence?

God does not will any of this on us, but when he created man, he gave us free will and gave nature power over our lives.

I was curious about this primarily because of something I had learned as a child. My uncle, Phil Conrad, was killed by the Ku Klux Klan when the group had invaded Lilly in 1924. As a child, I continually asked myself the question, “Why did the KKK kill my uncle? Why did God let them kill my uncle?” He died long before I was born, but he was apparently a fun-loving, hard-working guy whose only offense was that he was a Catholic who was stricken by a stray bullet.

Kushner’s finally allowed me to understand that God created nature and gave every human being free will. He then let everything take its course.

What is important to God, from what I have learned, is how we react to terrible diseases and events.

That is where courage and faith are so important.

Courage and Faith

What everyone can take from John Conrad’s life and battle over the past year are the lessons of his courage and the faith in God that was instilled in him by his parents, ones that he carried with him through his life.

Courage is defined as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” Like so many with ALS, John had that courage, and he valiantly fought that battle. The challenging part of his is that ALS also a family disease that affects everyone as they watch someone they love struggle. They, too, needed courage, particularly because of fear of what they know can happen.

John had such a loving family who took care of him and loved him so. That aided him in his final year.

However, at the core of John's battle was a spiritual base that also gave him sustenance. Francis and Dorothy Mae Conrad raised their children with a strong belief in God. They attended church at St. Agnes’ in Cassandra and were raised to believe that God will provide you with strength — if you ask for it through prayer.

Francie’s parents, Regis and Eleanor Conrad, were also deeply religious. I remember visiting and seeing Eleanor sitting in her rocking chair with rosary beads in her hands. Francie told me via phone last week that he walks around the house in the winter with rosary beads in his hands, saying it every day more than once. He said that this had added significance since he learned of John’s battle.

When fighting a disease, and when trying to figure out why things like this occur, the spiritual part is so important. It is only natural to question God like Harold Kushner did, but he went back to his spiritual roots to understand that God loves him and was not punishing him by allowing his son to contract such a horrible disease. He was just allowing us to show courage as his son did on Calvary.

That, no doubt, sustained John in his struggle. When he passed away last week, his family was shocked because while they knew that he was struggling, they thought that they would have him a little longer.

However, what I have learned about the spiritual life is that we have no control over such things. God will welcome John because he was a man who lived the good life in so many ways. The challenge that he faced was difficult, but he confronted it well.

In short, John Conrad will be remembered as a very good man, and that is what we should remember about him. We will never know why bad things happen to such wonderful people like he was, but we can be sustained by what he did throughout his life, particularly in his final days.

God bless you, John!

My deepest sympathy to Elaine, Heather, Byron, and Tyler; to Francie and his children: Jean Ann, Mark, Charlene, Mary Rose, DeSales, and Eleanor.

A beautiful obituary:

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