When John W. Conner passed away in 2017 at the age of 86, there were two things really important in his life that his family wanted to pay tribute to: the Shriners Hospitals for Children and Pine Tree Camp.
“A lot of what he wanted to do, was able to do, and did do was because of Pine Tree Camp and Shriners Hospital,” his son John D. Conner recalled.
John W. Conner grew up on a farm in central Maine and was diagnosed with polio in 1935 during the Great Depression. He spent much of his childhood away from his family at the Shriners Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts, only coming home for six weeks in the summer and two weeks at Christmas. At Christmastime in 1944, he came home for good to be with his five brothers and sisters.
A year later, Pine Tree Camp was founded and became a place his doctors recommended he go each summer. It was during one of those summers that he designed the iconic Pine Tree Camp logo. Since that time, John’s emblem has been a positive symbol for the thousands of campers who drive down the camp road each summer and have their lives forever changed.
“Pine Tree Camp is family for so many people,” John D. continued. “My father was away from home so much as a child that his family truly became those he spent so much of his life with at the Shriners Hospital and Pine Tree Camp.”
John W. spent many years travelling back and forth from Maine to Springfield for continued treatment for polio including three spinal fusions and extensive physical therapy. Over time, he regained the use of his limbs and was able to lead a very active and full life. He often said, “I do all the things others do, I just do them differently.”
John W. was an avid sportsman who loved the Maine outdoors.
“We never mastered being a Mainer quite like he did,” his son John D. fondly remembered. “Dad loved to fish, especially fly fishing. I can still hear him grumbling about any type of fishing except fly fishing. He often carried me in to Kokadjo to fish the Roach Ponds for trout, the only fish that existed to him.”
“I imagine he first learned how to fish at Pine Tree Camp,” John’s sister Victoria said. “The spirit our father had for fly fishing was undeniable. Passing that along to his children and grandchildren brought him much joy.”
John D.’s three children spent many summers with their grandfather learning the art of fly fishing and how to be a Mainer.
“And Dad learning to duck as their flies tended to catch him more than the fish. He never hesitated to hunt and be as much of an outdoorsman as he could. He trekked many of the Baxter State Park trails and climbed Mount Katahdin, something I hope to do with my children and sister in the future, in honor, memory, and for him.”
Victoria recalls how their father didn’t talk about his struggles with polio.
“I remember going for walks with him, witnessing his limp, helping take his boots off in the winter — little things like that to help; but the disability never became a topic of conversation, because my Dad never viewed it as a disability. I think his years at Pine Tree Camp contributed to that mentality of breaking through barriers and adopting a mentality of inclusiveness.”
When John W. was in his early 80s, Victoria brought him back to Pine Tree Camp so they could walk the grounds together, see what had changed and reminisce about the early days. He was using crutches and it brought to mind an old photo of him when he was 10 years old standing with crutches on that very same lawn. It is a memory that will stay with her forever.
“My Dad was very proud of his years at Pine Tree Camp. My visits with him to the camp over various stages of our lives really demonstrated how much the camp did for him as a young man and the great impact it had on him his whole life.”