Silver Medalists / Interviews / Writing / Books, Books, Books

Be Yourself. Be Patient. Be Clear.

. 29 min read . Written by Russell Smith
Be Yourself. Be Patient. Be Clear.

Biographer Steven Rabalais reflects on the wisdom of General Fox Conner

Last fall, I launched a series of biographies into people I termed “Silver Medalists.” The idea is that most of us will never become the next Steve Jobs or John D. Rockefeller or Pablo Picasso. But we can still aim high – very high – in work, creativity and the art of living. Given that reach, we should seek to learn more from these Silver Medalists – men and women who achieved greatness, but perhaps not to earth-shaking levels – more than, say, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett or Elizabeth I.

The first biography in the series covered Major General Fox Conner, one of the pivotal figures in the United States Army during World War I. After the war, he became the key mentor to Dwight Eisenhower, who would lead the Allied forces in Europe during the Second World War and later become President of the Unite States.

Following that essay, I reached out to Steven Rabalais, an attorney in Lafayette, Louisiana, who wrote the most comprehensive biography of Conner. Steve kindly agreed to speak with me. We enjoyed a wonderful conversation on February 25, 2023.

I accidentally invited my Uncle Raymond to the interview with Steve. Imagine my surprise when I logged into Zoom to speak with Steve, and there’s my uncle, chatting away with him! Toward the end of the discussion, Uncle Ray and Steve, both attorneys, spoke for a few minutes. That turned out to be a neat addition to the conversation, so I’ve included it here.

Steve offers much wisdom throughout this conversation – I think you’ll enjoy just as much as I (and my Uncle) did!

Steve, I was ecstatic to learn about your book. I learned about it through the Army Historical Foundation, which I worked for 25 years ago. I found out about Fox Conner when I was a senior in college from a professor named Edgar Puryear, who had done a lot of research into military leadership and wrote a couple books about it. I'm curious: when and how did you first learn about Fox Conner?

So, I have a good friend, an old college roommate who has made his career in radio broadcasting. And he has a call-in show, and he has to do that every day, and periodically he needs to go on vacation. What he does is call people that he knows to fill in for him. He asked me to fill in for him and the date that he actually had asked me to host for was June 6th, which, as you know, is the Normandy invasion anniversary. So I thought I would try to do something on the topic. I had seen where there was a new book out at the time. The author is named Mark Perry. Fabulous book – it's called Partners in Command. Just like you contacted me, I contacted Mark Perry and I asked, “Would you come on the show?” and he said he’d be delighted to. I thought I would owe Mr. Perry the courtesy of trying to read his book in advance of the interview. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to read it all. So, you know, when you do interviews you frequently read through something. You don't read it page for page, word for word. You read through it. You read things to kind of get the gist of it. It's funny, because I would read, and the book was about the Eisenhower – George Marshall relationship. Every time I'd read through it, it was either Eisenhower talking about this guy Fox Conner, or Marshall talking about this guy Fox Conner. And I said, well, Conner looks interesting and I'd like to read a book about him. I got on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble. I didn't see a book about Fox Conner. So I've decided that I always wanted to write a book. He looked like a good place to start, so I started with him.

That is so awesome.

That's true. So, Mark Perry, I have him to thank for this. If Mark had told me no, and I had gone on to do something else on that radio show, I probably would never have heard of this gentleman, and you and I wouldn't be speaking today.

You said you'd always wanted to write a book. Had you considered writing any other book before this? What spoke to you about this specifically.

Well. I can't say that I did. I grew up reading. My father was a big reader, and we always grew up around books. It's just been a vague thing that I always wanted to do, and just a dormant desire. This seemed to be an opportunity and I thought I would give it a shot.

You're a full time practicing attorney. How did you go from hearing about Fox Conner to saying, “you know I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna undertake this enormous research effort and then write it and then edit it and revise it and publish it.” Tell me about that whole process from thinking about it to tackling it.

I started small. I started like anybody else would. I started Googling and I saw what was out there and most of the Googling was to see if I could find a book on this guy. The information came in and honestly, it's not really difficult to do when you're a practicing attorney. The skills are highly complementary, at least in the field that I practice. I’m a litigation attorney. What we do day in, day out – we are confronted with a mass of information and we need to rapidly update things. Sort out what seems useful from what's not. Organize it in some manner for later use. Honestly, this was not a chore relative to the practice of law. It was actually very complementary. It became the same fundamental exercise, except it was something that was perhaps more interesting to me personally than the run of the mill legal case. I don't have a very exotic law practice. I deal basically with the defense of truck wrecks. I represent a lot of trucking companies and insurance companies. But the analytical skills of it are essentially the same, really. So it really was not anything more than just taking on the work that I would do during the regular work day, except I would apply it to something that I found very interesting. It all just kind of went from there. So it was really not too hard.

How long did it take you from getting going until you submitted the final manuscript, and you knew it was going to get published?

The interview with Mark Perry, I believe, was in 2007. The germ of the idea started in 2007 and I did a little bit on it. Then I put it aside for a good long while. It was probably around 2010 that I had kind of played with it, as you might play with growing a garden. You work on it then mostly leave it alone. I was born in 1960, so I hit 50 at that time, and it was like, “I’m not getting any younger. Let's try.” At that point in time, I decided to start putting ideas into concrete sentences and paragraphs, and so forth. I would say I wrote it in earnest. Now, bearing in mind, this is something that's always been fun for me. It's not what I do for money. It generates a little bit of income, but trust me not enough to quit my day job. I just had fun with it. Fortunately, I had absolutely no pressure to finish it by any time. That phase took me probably about 5 years. Then I found a publisher and got a contract. Well, at that point there was pressure to get it done. But when I agreed to that timeframe, I figured I could make it. You could say from initial conception to it hitting the shelves took 8 or 9 years.

That's amazing. Did writing this biography change your life in any way? If so, how?

Well, I had fun. Changed me? Probably not. I can honestly say this whole thing has been fun for me, including our chat today. For some guys fun is playing golf and I used to be a big fisherman. Everybody's got a different definition of “fun.” This whole thing has been a pleasure for me. It's been enjoyable. If there was ever a nanosecond that it felt like work, I just stopped. I put it aside and didn't deal with it until I was ready to do so. I'm very flattered that you reached that to discuss it. But by no means have  I achieved any sort of status or stature as a literary figure. Nothing like that.  I am still today what I was when I started it: a guy raising a family, practicing law, trying to find something that's fun to do in life that you don't get in trouble for. Other than maybe enhancing it and making life a little bit more fun for me, it has not changed me.

Can we talk about a couple of moments in Fox Conner's life? One of which is this: I am so interested in Fox Conner spending 15 years as a Captain. I’m a GenXer. The thought to me of staying in place for 15 years is an anathema. And it seems like Millennials or Gen Zers or subsequent generations would feel the same way. The thought of having the same title, same rough pay, same rough duties for a decade and a half – that boggles my mind. Talk to me about that period in Fox Conner's life, how he kept going, how he persevered, and the worth he saw in the work, even though it seemed like he wasn't advancing.

Let's start with that last word, “advancing.” Advancement means you're moving relative to something else, right? Well, everyone else around him was in the same boat. None of his contemporaries moved any faster. He was where everyone else was. The military was not then like it is now. It was a very small, tiny, fraternal thing. The concept was that if you want this as your career, you're going to pay your dues, and you're not going to advance in rank fast – it wasn't unique to him. He was well in-line with his contemporaries. That’s point number one. Point number two – let me ask you, Russell, did you read the book? Or did you do like I did [with Mark Perry’s book] and skim it?

Yes, I read it. Three times. I read it for fun a while back. Then I read it deeply to take notes for my essay, and then I did skim it leading up to this interview.

So point two – yeah, he didn’t advance in rank. But if you think about the period that you're talking about – think about how interesting and enjoyable some of the things he did during that time. He got to go to France, and this is a boy from rural Mississippi. Man, I've been up there. Today that is the boondocks. Can you imagine a century ago? Well, this man got to spend a year living in France, living in Paris. He was sent to and succeeded at these brand-new, cutting edge colleges and schools that the army had set up to train and develop its best and brightest. Yes, he was still a Captain, but among the captains again advancement relative to what? I think the guy wanted to be a soldier. He didn't want to be anything else. He wanted to be a soldier. They weren't going to make special rules for him. A lot of his contemporaries didn’t make Captain. It’s like right now in the military. You get to the point where there's a ton of Lieutenant Colonels, and you move up or you move out. I do not think Conner viewed it as something that required perseverance and endurance. I think he would have told you he was advancing very well relative to his peers.

Interesting. Fascinating.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a few postings here and there, but the man loved horses. A posting to Fort Riley, Kansas, where you had a lot of off time as an artillery officer and you can just ride the prairies out there on horses. Yeah, I think the guy had a great time.

I want to ask about another time in Conner's career. This is the end of World War I. He is in the Palace of Versailles. He's at the ceremony signing the treaty to end World War I. You do a really nice job of talking about the aura, the atmosphere, the champagne being popped in that room. The Allies are ecstatic. Finally, after years, all the killing and slaughter have ended. And it's Conner, who, seemingly alone, looks at everything going on, and looks beyond that, and thinks to himself, “the next world war is basically guaranteed at this ceremony.” Later, he mentors Eisenhower and Marshall and George Patton and others to get ready, because the next world war is coming. I remember Edgar Puryear, my teacher, talking about this: “Get ready for the next world war. It is coming.” I'd love to hear from you. How did he have that insight? How did he look beyond that moment of celebration? How did he look ahead 20, 30 years to see that something terrible was going to happen because of what was going on in that ceremonial moment?

Well, I can only speculate. What we have on all that comes from people who are relating what Conner told them. In my own research, I did not see a diary entry or a letter or anything first-person from Conner, where it says that. It's second hand. It's coming from what people say he said. Now, I accept that. I think enough people related it and it seems plausible to me.

I do have some insight and speculation as to why I think that was the case. There are three primary factors. The first one: The United States fought the Germans in that war, but Conner was an admirer of the German military. If you look back to Conner's formative period, when he's studying at the Staff College, at Leavenworth, Kansas, and at the Army War College, they were studying the Germans. They were studying the successful methods by which the Germans had managed to defeat the French in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. All their map exercises were modeled off of that experience, and I could go on and on.

During the war he did not have a hatred for the Germans at all. In fact, because he was in such close quarters with them, I think he probably had as much disdain for the French as he did the Germans. So, he did not have a disdain for the German military and he in fact admired the martial skills of the German Empire.

Then number two is Conner, in his heart of hearts, had always thought that the war needed to end on German soil. If you go back to the end of the war, he was busy planning up this big offensive that was going to take place in Lorraine and head toward Metz and capture the coal fields. A lot of Conner's critics thought, “this guy was bummed the war ended when it did. He was having a ball, he was having the time of his life doing all this.” I quoted some of those critics in my book. I think Conner thought: ”the way that the Germans quit is not good. This isn't how it was supposed to have ended. It was supposed to end with the actual military defeat in Germany, where their ability to wage war was removed.”

A third factor he had gathered from his time in the French army. When he had served that year with the French army, he had seen how France and Germany had a visceral hatred of each other concerning the Alsace and Lorraine provinces. He thought that just as the French felt humiliated after 1870 and would not forget it, and would motivate them for revenge, the Germans would feel humiliated after World War I and that would motivate them. And they were and they did.

So, I think you put those three together to answer your question. That's as close as I can come.

This is awesome. This is incredible. What I’m hearing from you is because the war didn't end with a real military victory by the Allies on German soil, the Germans had this psychological sense, that they didn't really lose.

I think that's been borne out by history. Hitler used that to great effect – that they were never beaten; that it was Jews and other people who sold them out at Versailles. Their system collapsed, their political system collapsed, their economic system collapsed. A blockade had been on them for years. But on the battlefield, they could have and should have retreated behind the Ardennes Forest, regrouped, waited for the spring, and come back again. I mean, look! They quit in the middle of November. The winter was almost there. Conner was not alone, by the way, in thinking that the war was going to end in 1919. I think he may have been a little bit more disappointed that it didn't end the way he thought it should, and would, have ended. His critics were not at all kind to him on the thought that he was actually sorry that this was over with.

If you sort of look at the totality of World War I, the accomplishments of the German war machine are remarkable. When the Americans entered the war in April 1917, look what had happened or was about to happen. The Bolshevik Revolution had taken the Russians out of the war. So the Germans could redeploy all of those troops and material and effort to the Western front. There was great fear among the Americans that they better get there fast, or France is going to collapse before the Americans could do any good. But it was remarkable that the Germans had held up a two-front war for that long.

A lot of credit there goes to the French. They really had the good sense to put in a conciliator, a commander like one that Eisenhower later became, rather than someone who would dictate to the British. And that was Marshal Ferdinand Foch. The French and the British both understood that they had to form a combined, actual alliance rather than two independent armies fighting at the same time.

It is rather remarkable that the Germans did not succeed in 1918, because the Americans were not there with enough force to stop the German offenses. We can’t say we had no role, but we were not the primary reason the war ended. The Germans had more men, but at the end of the day their farms could only feed so many people, their factories could make only so many artillery shells and bullets. The collapse in Germany came from within. The political system collapsed. The industrial base collapsed. With the blockade, the British strangled them, and it worked. That was as much of a factor in why they just quit.

What was your view of General John J. Pershing at the end of your research?

Very, very skilled commander in chief. I don't have anything negative to say about Pershing. I think that he was given a massive undertaking with wholly inadequate resources. Very, very vague guidance on how it was he was supposed to accomplish this. Went over there took charge of the situation, assembled a very talented team around him. Conner was by no means the only one. He held his ground. He conceded points to his Allies when he needed to. He held firm when he needed to. As a leader of a military over there, I think he did a fine job. I am sure someone can nitpick. I'm sure minds that are much more attuned to military strategy than mine can find countless things. You can find countless things Napoleon did wrong if you nitpick. But on the whole, if you look at what the man was asked to do, what he was given to work with, and what the ultimate accomplishments were, I give him an A+.

Now would I necessarily want him for my father-in-law? Probably not. He was a hard man. But I don't know that you're going to be everybody's best friend, and accomplish the mission that he had. In France, he had to play Secretary of State. He had to be the head of the army. He had to play the American Ambassador. He was all of these roles simultaneously.

And he had confusing orders from Congress, and his boss, Peyton C. March, the Army Chief of Staff, hated him. What an awful, terrible role to be in.

And I totally understand March’s position. Okay. When a flawed structure is in place, and you are asked to function within the flawed structure, what's more important: accomplishment of what you're asked to do or adherence to the rules and regulations of the structure? A vast majority of the population maybe, including me, would say, “Well, the rules say to do xyz. So, I guess we should do it that way.” What galled March so much was that Pershing just did it. He didn't ask for March’s approval, didn't care what March thought, and as long as they were succeeding no one was going to remove him. Now, had the Germans not collapsed, or if Conner's grand plan to go into Germany and beat them over there not worked after a while, then I’m sure he would have found himself with friends few and far between.

One thing I've wondered. It was not like the man we elected as President in 1920 was that outstanding of a figure: Warren G. Harding. I tend to think Pershing would have made a fine president, but he never got off the ground. He wanted it. He was definitely interested in it, but never got off the ground. So, George Washington heads a war. President Andrew Jackson's the leading figure coming out of 1812. President Zachary Taylor is the leading figure coming out of the Mexican War. Ulysses Grant comes out of the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt comes out of the Spanish-American War. Dwight Eisenhower comes out of World War II. All these guys become president. But not Pershing, and that’s very interesting. He would have made a good president. I don't think he'd have done any worse than Harding for sure.

It's interesting to consider the military leaders that didn't get the chance to be president. Douglas MacArthur got shot down. He was old at that time. Colin Powell got shot down. He sort of floated the idea, then didn't really take off at all.

I remember poor Powell out there with a Mexican hat on trying to do the Macarena dance. Ha! He's not cut out for this.

You had the right job. You had the right job.

Absolutely, and you know what? Powell passed away recently.  But I bet you, Powell is sitting in his rocking chair, thank the good Lord above that he did not become president.

Was Conner a religious man?

I don't think he was. None of that comes through in anything I read. He may have gone to church. But I don't think that he identified with any particular religion. He probably went to whatever chapel was on the base, he would probably go to set an example for his men. But otherwise, not that I know of.

Besides Conner himself, who emerged as the most interesting figure or intriguing figure in his life, Was it his wife? Was it Eisenhower? Was it Marshall? Who else steps out of the shadow?

Yeah, let's think about that. I don't know that I’m able to boil that down to one person. His father was a massive influence upon him. I don't think there's any doubt, because of the strength of character of his father and Conner's admiration of him, and desire to emulate him. His father was a big influence on him. Beyond that, he definitely was influenced by General Pershing in the same manner that he later influenced Eisenhower. My take on Marshall was that he and Conner were much more friends – there may have been a rank differential between them, but again, in that army, that wasn't as defining as it is right now. But he and Marshall were contemporaries and pals and buddies. With Eisenhower, that was clearly a mentor-protege-type relationship. Conner was very influenced by his wife and wife's family. He had a sincere fondness, maybe love, for his wife. But also army officers tended to make advantageous marriages to women with money, because they were expected to be in a certain lifestyle, fairly or not. Conner and his people had no money. These were dirt farmers, in 1920s Mississippi. I do think he and his wife genuinely liked each other. I think she didn't take anything off of him. He didn't take anything off of her. One thing is pretty revealing – rarely were they apart. A lot of people did not take their spouse with them to postings. But he did. She went with them, and I think they in general genuinely enjoyed each other's company.

Those are the figures I think of.

I agree. His father-in-law really stood out to me. He was, as you know, wealthy, and that opened up for him a totally different life – an aristocratic New York-based life. That was very different than his parents. Not morally better, but different.

I think he always in his heart of heart viewed himself as a Mississippi boy. He never viewed himself as a New Yorker. He viewed himself as a guy from Mississippi. But when leaves of absence occurred he would head up to the Adirondack Mountains and not head back to the heat and humidity of Mississippi's cotton fields. Hell, I can't blame him. I live in a very similar place. As time went on, particularly once his parents died, he had less and less reason to go down South and he went very infrequently. I don't believe that many of his nephews and nieces from his several brothers and sisters really knew him to any degree. Whereas I'm still in touch with the people in New York – the nephews and nieces on his wife's side of his family. They're still calling their kids “Fox Conner.” He definitely became integrated much more into that New York family.

I want to ask a few questions about him as a leader and as a mentor. If I want to be a great mentor, what lessons should I take from Fox Conner?

Let me think about that. I would say, number one – be yourself. Don't try to be anything different. I mean you can't. You can't give somebody what you don't have. That's fundamental. You can't give someone any sort of attribute that you don't have yourself. You have to be yourself.

If you see some potential in someone, have patience. This is Life 101, but just because you want something doesn't mean it's gonna happen immediately, or happen ever. Be patient.

Be clear. What is it that you're trying? What is it that you're trying to convey? Don't bury the message in 20 minutes of anecdotes where it might get lost in what you're trying to tell. If someone is responsive enough to ask you questions, maybe even challenge the way you think, give that the respect of consideration. Perhaps they're right. Perhaps whoever it is that you're trying to teach can teach you something.

Those are the things that pop immediately.

We hear about Conner’s successes. And there may be an open question – maybe Eisenhower would have turned into Eisenhower even without Fox Conner. Did you find anyone who Fox Conner did really try to mentor but it didn't turn out so well?

So, some of the folks that were kind of equivalent to Eisenhower, but they didn't pan out.

Yes. For whatever reason, the mentoring didn’t stick or something else happened to thwart Conner’s efforts.

Two names come to mind. But first, let's put that in perspective. If the measuring stick is – become Supreme Allied Theatre Commander and President of the United States – then nobody else measured up.

I can think of one guy in particular. In the interwar period there was a gentleman, an army officer, named Trimble Brown. Trimble was an aide de camp to General Conner. And Conner got him sent to the right schools, and did all this with Trimble as well as Eisenhower. So, Trimble is of command age when the Second World War breaks out. He’s a Colonel at that point. I cannot recall if he was the commander of a regiment or a battalion, but it was one of them that was involved in the early combat experiences in North Africa. You know we had a very spotty record up until the Kasserine Pass.  And I can’t recall if it was at Kasserine or an action that led to it, but Trimble Brown’s unit was seriously outmaneuvered and encircled. I think Trimble got away, but a lot of his men were captured. And Trimble didn't see the battlefield again after that. In fact, I could see in Marshall's papers at this point – in late 1942 or early 1943 – and Conner is writing to Marshall on Trimble Brown's behalf. Conner is, saying, “Look, just let him come home.” And you know the saying, “Victory has 1,000 fathers but defeat is an orphan.” Trimble was under much scrutiny and criticism, and Conner intervened to just let him come home. Trimble Brown would be one.

The other one that pops to mind – the man's name is so distinctive. His name was Xenophon Price. Price had been one of Conner's right-hand men in the G3, in the operation section of the American Expeditionary Force General Headquarters in World War I. So, Price was one of Conner's boys. Now he got to be a Major. After the war Price was Pershing’s kind of chief assistant on the American Battlefield Monuments Commission. You may recall from the book that Eisenhower served under Price for a little while on this Battle Monuments Commission. I can remember Eisenhower quoting Price as saying that “you mark my word, the men who serve on this Commission are destined for great things.” That was Xenophon Price in 1919. Well, when Eisenhower takes over, he becomes Theater Commander in 1942. He runs across the name of Xenophon Price – who is still a Major at that point. You move up or you move out, and he did neither. They just kept him as a Major for all that time. Eisenhower at least promoted him to Colonel, so that he could get out as a Colonel at least.

None of these are household names, but a lot of the people who served with Conner in that G3 section of World War I  went on to have positions of prominence in the interwar period, then to hold major field command roles in the Second World War. But poor old Price! He got stuck at Major! Now why was that? I didn't take the time to dig into that.

But, as I say, if you try to measure people against the Eisenhower standard, well, then, they were all failures, you know?

In his own mind, what do you think was Conner's biggest disappointment or his own sense of failure? If he had any.

For an army officer to not command forces in actual military combat was a disappointment to him. I know he felt that acutely in the early stages of his career, where he did not go to Cuban and he did not go to the Philippines. But I do think he reconciled himself, maybe a lot better than, say, George Marshall. Conner was a devotee of the General Staff system – again harkening back to the Germans and the admiration that he had for them. He thought that those people were as good as they were in the field primarily because their General Staff were as good as they were behind the lines. I think he reconciled himself early on to that.

I never really saw where he expressed any great disappointment during the First World War that he was not commanding troops then. Others, like James Harbord, did. He pestered Pershing incessantly to get a battlefield command. Conner came to a recognition that he was where he was good; here is what he's good at. Everybody cannot be the quarterback. We need some good solid guards here, we need a good tight end. Pick your sport. Not everybody can be the pitcher. We need a good shortstop here, and so on.

I think the man genuinely enjoyed what he did. I think he found the period after World War I hard. You didn’t wear military uniforms anymore, you wore a coat and tie. I think he hated that. He hated the de-emphasis, almost the marginalization, of the military role.

He was not good giving testimony. He hated going to Congress. You know he hated the political and Washington, DC, part of it. I don't believe the man was disappointed at all that he did not become Chief of Staff, except perhaps in 1930, because Douglas MacArthur got it. He and MacArthur didn't get along. Short of that, he was extremely happy when they put him over those Civilian Conservation Corps camps in the in the 1930s. He could wear his riding boots; he could go out on horseback; he could sit down and eat with the guys; I think he loved all that.

Steve, some last few questions. This has been amazing! What lessons do you take away from the life of Fox Conner?

I admire his devotion to his particular profession and calling. That sticks out for me. For a lot of those guys, it would have been easy to quit and a lot did. I admire his devotion. It speaks highly of him that he understood his role and did it as best as he could. He wasn't constantly sniping at people who had other roles. He was a great team player.

Back to an earlier question – I don't think it's really debatable that without Fox Conner you have no Eisenhower. Without Fox Conner, Eisenhower gets convicted in a court martial of fudging on expense reimbursements. I don't believe he comes back from that. The army at that point had more officers than they needed. This would not have been a slap on the wrist for Eisenhower.

The fact that he did take an interest in someone and helped them for no benefit to himself, that speaks well. Those are kind of the things I take from Conner.

I find him so intriguing that in his own career he married the callings of his father and his mother. His father was a soldier in the Civil War. His mom was a teacher. He became both of those things in his career.

I believe he did. The Conner home in Slate Springs, Mississippi, formed him, but that's probably true for most of us. He was fortunate that he had two very positive factors that coalesced into his upbringing. Not all of us are that lucky. But I don't think there's any doubt about that. His parents were teachers and he was a teacher. I don't think there's any doubt about that. And so, I think that's true.

How do you think he evaluated his own life? How did he look back on his own life? How did he evaluate it?

If you happen to remember from the book, it ends with Conner fishing on a lake. He's being rowed around by this young guy, Sam Black, who was waiting to be called up in World War II. So, here's Conner and Sam Black, old man and young guy, rowing around in a boat and fishing. I don't know if you fish or not, but I've done a lot of fishing, and when you're fishing, you tend to make it a nice, pleasant conversation. Everything has this nice glow about it. According to Sam, Conner talked about being a soldier and enjoying his military career.

I see no evidence that he ever graded himself. I think General Conner would have said – given what I had to work with, I did as well as I could do. Undoubtedly, I made some mistakes. Undoubtedly, I zigged when he should have zagged, and so forth. But I got absolutely no inclination from him that he viewed his career as anything but a success.

Another witness to this was Sam’s contemporary, Macpherson Conner, the grandson of Fox Conner.  Incidentally I met him, and he turned over a lot of the information which was really the big unlocking of the treasure chest to get this book written. Mac goes to West Point; he wanted to be like his grandpa. And I think that if you had a guy who was not proud of his career, I don't think he'd have been talking about it while being rowed around in a boat with a young guy. And I don't think his grandson would have been motivated to go to West Point too. That's my speculation.

That brings up the undercurrent of his relationship with his son Tommy, and then Tommy’s son Mac, was intriguing and interesting, too.

Well, I don't think he did a great job on Tommy. Tommy's name was Fox Conner, but there was a reason he called himself Tommy. In fact, I think Tommy really did not want to go to West Point. That’s pretty clear. The military was something that Fox Conner essentially made his son do. Tommy wanted to go to MIT and be an engineer and take over the family business. And that's ultimately what Tommy ended up doing.

That’s right.

But again,  I don't know that if Conner was displeased with his military career, that he would have been as insistent that his own son go there. Let me just say this. I sure hope people don't put a microscope to my own parenting. I'm sure we could all point to shortcomings and all that. I don't think he would have been the only man of his time or any other who wanted one thing for his son with the son wanted something else, and the son ultimately yielded –  to everyone's regret. That's a story as old as the hills.

I don't think Tommy even made his four years. He got out and went to work, I believe, for RCA, which was a major thing at that time in wireless communications. And the guy he went to work for was James Harbord – probably Pershing’s closest right-hand guy in World War I. That’s who Tommy went to work for. So yeah, Tommy did it. Tommy hated it. From what Mac told me – Tommy's wife, who would be Mac’s Mom, was not nearly as into military life as Bug Conner [Fox Conner's wife] was.

Right. I can imagine my wife’s reaction if I said, “Hey Sweetie, I want to work in the Army and we’re going to live in Leavenworth, Kansas.” Last question for you, Steve. What's next? Do you have any more books in you?

The truthful answer is this. Back then I just hit 50. Okay? Well, I’m in my sixties now. My law practice is still just as busy as it ever was. In fact, it's busier. We're having trouble finding attorneys and paralegals and secretaries. That’s a dying breed – legal secretaries don’t really exist anymore. So I find myself with less time than I did and certainly, unfortunately, less energy. You know, I wouldn't have thought that, but I find myself with a little bit less energy in my sixties than I did in my fifties!

I have been working on another project since 2017 or 2018 on another project. I’ve got a wealth of material. But I just don't find that I've got the energy and the juice to come home after a day at the office, or in the courtroom, and come home and work on it. I find myself more just wanting to sit down, and do less cerebral things. And so, that means I’m just getting older. But if I could make it work, I think it would be a fine book. It's about one of Conner's contemporaries. So, you asked the question: who did I come across in the Conner experience that really intrigued me? Well, the guy I am working on now is Malin Craig.

Absolutely – the Army Chief of Staff right before Marshall. Yes.

He's another one with no books on him. Zero books. General Craig's grandchildren are still alive, and just like Mac Conner, they opened the key and turned over all their stuff to me. There's a great story there.

I just don't have the energy that I once had, and that's for better or for worse. So, I don't know exactly how much longer I'm gonna work. I have no plans to retire. I still plan to write the Malin Craig book if nobody beats me to it.

I know a lot of folks when they ponder retirement, they wonder what will they do with themselves? I really don't think that'll be my problem. I've got the raw material for that book. People contact me on a fairly regular basis about this Fox Conner book and comment favorably upon the degree of facts that are in it. This Craig project is the same. We just have to make it work.

The other book I’d like to write, depending on how much time the good Lord gives me, is this. I live down here in Louisiana and down in these parts, one famous thing that all guys my age and older grew up knowing about is something called the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941. The book I'm writing on Craig will end in 1939. It's gonna end when Marshall takes over as Chief of Staff in 1939. But I don't think the Louisiana Maneuvers have been written about properly. So, if I happen to be blessed with a lot of longevity, that would probably be Book Number Three. Right now, I can't get Book Number Two done.

When you finish the Craig book, I will definitely read it. It sounds amazing. I would love to learn more about him

I'm quite flattered. That is crazy. You know, guys like Conner and like Craig, the reason there really was no book, and the reason that a guy like me gets to write that book is you can't write that book. If you're writing books for a big publisher…

Yeah, right, there's no way.

You just cannot write those books, because you can't do the research, and you can't turn it around in time to meet the kind of deadlines they have. Nor do books like that have any sort of mass appeal. They seem to be of great interest to military history aficionados. When you look at people who make a living writing books, they are few and far between. And so, it has to be somebody like me who takes it on as a project, to get these done.

Well, Steve, this has been amazing. I appreciate it so much.

Let me say I’m very flattered. This has all been fun for me. I didn't know if anybody would like it, and so it's gratifying to me that you take the time from your weekend to chat with me about it. I got as much out of this call, if not more than you did, so I thank you.

Yeah. Well, Steve again. Thank you so much. I'm so grateful. Uncle Ray, thanks for listening in on us.

Uncle Ray: I had muted mine, so I wouldn't do anything to interfere with the interview. I want to tell you I came away with as much as probably both of you all did as well.

Steve: Well, I'm glad. So, what area of the law do you practice in Ray?

Uncle Ray: Well, I was in litigation for 41 years, and probably the bulk of that was more appellate practice. But the law firm –  similar to how you described your practice – we did defense work. We did a significant amount for insurance companies. We did a lot of product liability and things along that line. Some trucking cases, but not nearly of the magnitude that your practice includes. I did it for about 41 or 42 years.

Steve: So, you understand, there's really not a major shift to go from the massive intake of disorganized information to put that into a coherent trial, presentation, or an appeal brief presentation, to writing a book. That skill is essentially the same.

Uncle Ray: Yeah, I think the tactics, the strategy, there are clearly similarities.

Steve: Yeah, absolutely. Well, gentlemen, it was a pleasure meeting, both of you. And thank you.

Alright. Thanks again, Steve. I appreciate it.


Photo courtesy of Steven Rabalais. Image created by Midjourney.

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