Reflections on Irmgard Conley, by Krystyna U. Wolniakowski
Our boats met each other first. Crashing into ‘CARA’, a 35-foot teak 1964 Cheoy Lee Lion sloop, on a stormy day in April 1980, was a crisis that turned into an opportunity for a lifelong friendship with Irmgard Conley.
When I was a young marine biology graduate student conducting research at Friday Harbor Marine Labs, I skippered an old clunky wooden sampling boat up through East Sound. We always stopped at the Olga dock to buy lunch from the tiny Olga Store on the corner. My fellow scientists and I loved that spot, the view, the peacefulness, the little park bench, and rickety dock. Then we would finish the day at Rosario where we docked our boat, sharing a slip with a lovely 35-foot sailboat that we always admired. We would return to FHL by ferry each day—the old boat just could not survive those daily crossings in unpredictable winter weather. But on that April day, which started out calm and cloudy, we took the boat out to gather more water samples to analyze back at the lab. Suddenly a huge storm moved in, and the wind speed picked up quickly. The intense winds began to funnel through East Sound and the whitecaps quickly swelled in size, violently bouncing the boat from side to side. I turned the boat around immediately to head back, but it was a slow and wet return in the storm as icy cold waves crashed over the bow and we became completely drenched.
With frozen fingers gripping the wheel, I tried to carefully dock our university boat but the strong sidewinds blew me from side to side. A huge gust caught my stern and slammed our boat into the sailboat’s aft toe rail. The crunching sound of splintering teak terrified me—I was aghast thinking about first finding, and then calling, the owner to admit my accident. I was an extremely poor graduate student and had no idea how I could possibly pay the cost of repairs.
I will never forget the day I met John Conley, Irmgard’s husband, and soulmate. He arrived at the Rosario docks with a navy-blue stocking cap, khakis, boat shoes, and a captain’s aura, contemplatively puffing on his pipe. He did not smile. I explained the accident and apologized. He looked over the damage and before he could tell me how much it would cost to fix the splintered teak, I blurted out that I could fix it myself!! I knew how to clamp and glue and varnish, and it would be a pleasure to work on such a fine boat! He puffed his pipe, and he puffed his pipe. He looked at me askance, a bit startled at my offer. Then without causing me further agony, he said ok–he would accept 3 weekends of work because it just so happened that he had to refinish the entire teak deck, toe rails, and repaint the hull anyway as part of spring cleanup, so he welcomed my help. We then worked side by side scraping, sanding, painting, and varnishing until the boat gleamed like new.
That is when I met Irmgard. She had heard about John’s new “helper” so she would bring us delicious lunches as we toiled away and would periodically inspect my work and nod in silent approval. She was a perfectionist.
Then the big day came when we finished, and both John and Irmgard invited me for my first sail on CARA. Although I only had a few sailing lessons in college, I had a deep love for the sea as a marine biologist and had always wanted to sail on the ocean. Within minutes of exiting the slip in Rosario docks, they invited me to sail the boat. I was absolutely thrilled to take the helm and handled it better than I ever imagined. I was hooked for life!
But what was more important was that both John and Irmgard became wonderful friends. Over the years they visited me wherever I lived, and I visited them on Orcas as often as possible. I watched as they finished building their home and settled into the hamlet of Olga. Each conversation and our moments spent together were fun, insightful, sometimes irreverent, and funny. They especially loved to regale me with stories of their sailing adventures in the South Pacific as I sat riveted, listening to every word. They both loved the quote by Mark Twain and lived by these words:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the things you did. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sail. Explore. Dream. Discover. “
So, I followed their advice. When John passed suddenly in 2000, Irmgard sold CARA to me. With the help of several friends, we restored CARA to her former ocean-worthy glory. I became even closer with Irmgard, then, as she taught me much about sailing and how to navigate all aspects of being the owner of such a fine vessel.
During the last 23 years, I did explore, dream, and discover… but many of my happiest times were my visits with Irmgard in her Olga home or when she took the train to visit me and my friend Susan in Portland—continuing our conversations and comparing notes about marine conservation, environmental advocacy and justice, and engaging with friends to make a difference through political action, generosity of spirit, and looking out for each other. Irmgard mentored me, inspired me, shared her wisdom, and challenged me to be a bold thinker, not to shy away from controversy but to embrace it and try to have our voices heard. She was tenacious, and fiercely protective of nature and vocal about how we all need to do our part to create change for the better in every one of our actions, every day of our lives. There was no time to waste. She always had a sense of urgency that collectively we must keep working towards protection of landscapes, restoring ecosystems, and bringing back salmon to their home waters. She joined the board of the Friends of the San Juans in order to find a way to express her values and invest in the excellent work Friends of the San Juans does throughout the islands. She gave generously of her time, fervently advocated for what was right, and helped fund critically important projects with her philanthropy.
Each visit with Irmgard over four decades was unique and special to me. I deeply appreciated her big heart and love of sharing her delicious baked goods and meals, prepared with perfection and great attention to every detail. We often invited her friends over so I could meet them and together indulge in her tortes, pies, tarts, and pastries which were works of art, especially the recipes from her mother’s German cookbooks. She also enjoyed the treats we would bring to share with her—she relished the fresh Weiss Wurst and German sausages I would bring from Eidelweiss German Deli in Portland, the fresh and hand-canned fruits and vegetables from Maile and Ed, hand-crafted jams from Lorrie, the cookies and other goodies that Sandy, Susan and others brought for her to enjoy, especially when she no longer had the stamina to cook and bake.
Irmgard was a truly loyal friend to all of us who enjoyed listening to our stories and remembering the smallest details, and sharing her own views on life. I was always in awe hearing about her childhood in Germany and her bravery and challenges during World War 2 as a teen looking out for her family during such times of destruction and scarcity (much like my own mother who also endured World War 2 hardships in Ukraine). We took many walks, stopping to talk to neighbors about the current issues facing Orcas Island, and driving around the island to visit our favorite vistas and the madrone tree grove near West Sound.
Irmgard was 94 when she passed away at home on January 12, 2023. She left this world the same way she lived it, on her own terms and in her own home thanks to all her wonderful caregivers who looked after her until her last breath. I am so grateful for time with her, our discussions, and all the wisdom she shared with me, connecting me with so many of her friends on Orcas…. and especially for that wild storm 43 years ago that brought us together!
On this Earth Day, we are celebrating her meaningful life and the positive environmental legacy she leaves behind, as well as the enduring friendships she made with all of us along her journey in life. Let us remember her and honor her generous spirit by giving back to Irmgard’s Islands Conservation Fund.
Irmgard’s obituary can be found at www.whidbeymemorial.com. Friends and family are encouraged to share their memories and condolences.
Krystyna currently serves as the Executive Director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission/National Scenic Area in White Salmon, WA, and can be reached at [email protected].