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"The Rage of Needles": My father prevailed despite the horrific tragedy of 1924

My dad and granddaughter Tiffany in his beloved backyard in Lilly, Pa.

… after 32 years, recalling the desire to overcome adversity

Every family has difficult times that are challenging to overcome. That was the case with my father’s family. After losing his father at the age of 9, Hugh B. Conrad, Sr. was presented with another horrific challenge that affected the rest of his life.

The final Lilly High School basketball game on April 5, 1924, ended when the KKK cut the electricity to his hometown of Lilly, Pa. It was timed to coincide with their invasion of the small Catholic community of just over 2,000 people. As a result, Phil Conrad, his brother, who was the scorekeeper for the team, joined my dad and other who walked the two blocks to the center of town to watched the demented KKKers who sought to spew their hatred through the small community.

About two and a half hours later, Phil lay dead, with my dad standing in the crowd with him. Two others ultimately died, and the night lives in infamy even today, almost a century later.

My dad’s challenge

Over the next day or so, my father disappeared from the family home, according to what my Aunt Helen told me decades later. She said that he was hiding from the police and media because “he knew so much.”

In short, he saw it all, and the last thing that he wanted was to testify at the trial two months later. However, the pain of that continued with him for the rest of his life. His dreams were dashed and his life was unalterably changed.

However, rather than be despondent, he made the best of it. He did not engage in hatred or vitriol, although that may have been churning inside of him. He used the tools that were given to him by his mother in many instances, perhaps more by example than by verbiage.

That me to try and recapture the problems of the family in a rather rough poem. Here it is,

The Rage of Needles


Hugh Brady Conrad

Today they stand, tall and majestic,

towering, verdant growth seemingly

oblivious to the family domicile below,

which enshrouded repressed rage.

Intense fury that occurred because of

a ghastly Spring night, a time when

white-robed warriors disdainfully

whisked away the family’s sustenance.

The transgressors approached, surreptitiously

slinking into town like tramps upon the rails,

casting a pall of darkness before kindling

their denigration of the Papacy.

A cowardly and despicable act, wrought by

those who clothed themselves with a

repugnant veil of virtue, then scurried

away as thieves from an ill-fated heist.

But more crushing was the anguish

of the mother who buried her young son,

whose exuberance was whisked away

by those reckless purveyors of hatred.

The lessons brought from the Isle’s were gospel,

exacting hollow smiles from the family,

their sunny countenances obscuring the rage

at the perverse act of the demented invaders.

“You must not cry, Mother feels so bad,”

the youngest was told, compelling

her to suppress the incessant anger

that smoldered in her solitary cauldron.

A grieving brother planted the trees, attempting

to obscure the act that She had witnessed,

a futile attempt to shade their eyes, those

that were seared by the fateful debacle.

The needles and cones sprouted as

maternal fortresses from pain, obscuring

Her view of the domicile below, where

supplication provided a slight reprieve.

Over time, the family suppressed the anger,

their horrific pain divulged daily

to Him, the one whom the killers had

derogated by their repulsive arrogance.

And while He listened, their painful journey

altered the footprints for future generations

who also struggled as children, seeking to

comprehend the message from that night.

The needles fell, Mother’s battle serving as a

beacon of hope for those eternally struggling,

using a buffer to dissipate the pain, but never

removing the source of its infliction.

The “Rage”

According to, I am 92 percent Irish, although Conrad is a German name [albeit from Alsace-Lorraine]. The Irish are notorious for suppressing their emotions, and that was evident in my dad’s family. Fortunately for him, he was given a strong faith in God that came from his mother, Katie Brady Conrad, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in 1881.

Katie walked to Mass every day after Phil’s death, according to Helen who said that she never really recovered from that trauma. I have no idea when my dad started attending daily mass, but I know that from the time that I was a child until the last years of his life, he attended that service every day.

However, when Phil died, the family lost its source of income. He was a day short of 25 and had worked for the Pennsylvania railroad for years. At the time of his passing, he had been bumped out of is job on the railroad and was working in a coal mine in Moshannon in Washington Township.

That directly affected the dreams of my father, who was in the process of attempting to earn an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. His dream of attending college and even of participating in sports were dashed as he had to find job to support the family. He was hired by the U.S. Postal Service in 1925 and worked there for 40 years except for a stint in the Navy during World War II.

Turned a lemon into honey

However, rather than feeling sorry for himself, he decided to make something impressive of himself. Not only did he become a father of four children and build a family of whom he could be proud, he pursued his love of sports and became an outstanding football and basketball official at the high school and college levels. He was elected president of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials in 1964, and after retirement, he traveled through the Middle East and Southeast Asia with a college all-star team giving clinics to military personnel.

My dad also became a community leader with his major one being serving as president of the Lilly-Washington War Memorial Association for close to 33 years.

In addition, his faith led him to become a leader in his church, St. Brigid’s, and he was even awarded the Benemerenti Medical from Pope Pius XII for outstanding service to the church.

The pain never left. I saw some of that return after he went into dementia in his last years, but it never let the trauma of that night keep him from accomplishing a great deal in life — even if what he did may not have been his greatest dreams.

Never talked about 1924

My dad never really discussed what happened that night until his later years, and then only in generic terms. He was still careful about how he talked about it. Inside, he took with him most of what he saw that night. He even heard the stories that a man from Portage had killed his brother. That many was a member of the KKK and some of the old-timers insisted that he had killed Phil, but today, I do not believe that to be the case.

So, on the 32nd anniversary of his passing, at a time when rage is rampant in the U.S., this is a good recollection that many people, especially those of the World War II generation, were able to put aside hatred and work for the common good.

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