Joe Conlon: The Man Behind the Myth Behind the Legend

By July 22, 2020Mosquitoes

INTRODUCTION

It is highly likely that many of you know Joseph M Conlon only from his role as Technical Advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association, a job he held for 20 years and retired from June 30th of this year. Others have known and loved Joe for his many outstanding presentations at our meetings, for his sense of humor, for his dedication to our profession and much more. But how did Joe get to where he is today? What and who influenced him? What chances did he take and what decisions did he make that resulted in such a successful career? And what were some of the more interesting, entertaining or instructional events along the way? Let’s take a look and see what we can learn from his experiences.

Joe was born and raised just south of Cleveland, Ohio, where his family lived on a 2.5 acre lot surrounded on three sides by miles of woodlands. He was the third of four boys and had no sisters. As a youngster, he loved spending time outdoors – and his parents probably loved it too! – flipping over rocks and logs to see what secrets they might reveal. This was the genesis of his interest in insects and other creatures.

‘YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW’ AND SO WAS SERENDIPITY

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Army Specialist 4 Joe Conlon official photo, after being named Third Corps and Fort Hood Soldier of the Year in 1975. The Meritorious Service Medal was awarded later for service during Operation New Life at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

After high school, Joe enrolled at the University of Dayton, which didn’t agree with him, so he decided to look elsewhere. He needed money and his best friend had joined the Army a year earlier, so Joe sold his car and most of his clothes and presented himself at the enlistment center. He intended to be a Psychology Specialist, but fate intervened, as the Army schools for that MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) wouldn’t open for 6 months. Still committed to signing up, Joe then perused a book describing various MOSs and the words ‘Preventive Medicine Specialist’ caught his eye, the duties of which included knowledge of snakes and insects. ‘Sign me up!’ This was 1974.

After completing Basic Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, Joe attended Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. At his permanent duty station in Fort Hood, Texas, Joe was assigned to the Division Surgeon’s Office of the Second Armored Division – the famed “Hell on Wheels.” In 1975, as an E-4 (Junior Enlisted Army Specialist), he was designated the Chief Preventive Medicine NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) of a field hospital deployed to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas to support the relocation of 50,000 Vietnamese refugees. He was in charge of all base preventive medicine activities and had 7 senior enlisted working for him – quite a responsibility for someone so junior in rank!

Joe’s performance led to being awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (MSM) by Major General George Patton IV, the son of THE General Patton, who when presenting said to Joe, “You must have done something very special, son. I’ve never awarded one of these to any enlisted less than an E-8.”  Joe was the most junior person in the entire Department of Defense awarded the MSM that year and was also designated the ‘Soldier of the Year’ for the Fifth Army.

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SP4 Conlon (on right) receiving watch for being named Second Armored Division Soldier of the Year in 1975.

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Check received for being named Third Corps and Fort Hood Soldier of the Year in 1975. Upon being named 5th Army Soldier of the Year, Conlon received an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii to attend the opening of the Hale Koa armed services resort on Waikiki Beach, Honolulu in 1975.

GRADUATE SCHOOL: THE LIGHT COMES ON

After discharge from the Army, Joe attended Cleveland State University as an Environmental Health Major, taking courses that would easily transfer. While visiting Bowling Green State University, Joe stopped into the Biology Department and noticed they had a BS degree program in Parasitology and Medical Entomology. He signed up and completed the degree requirements in 1.5 years, then enrolled in the Master of Science program in the same department.

Joe’s epiphany came when he participated in a symposium on ‘How Insects Have Affected Human History.’ He was assigned to present a 10-page paper on Epidemic Typhus but instead drafted a 67-page treatise! He was hooked.

During graduate school, Joe served as Director for Wood County (Ohio) mosquito control services. Oh, and he was also the only employee! I wonder how the weekly staff meetings went.  Appropriately, this county is named for Captain Eleazer Derby Wood, US Army, who served alongside General William Henry Harrison in the War of 1812. Joe’s tools of the trade were a truck, scooter, Flit-MLO (a refined petroleum oil used as a larvicide and pupacide), pyrethrum Tossits and ULV malathion. Finding a huge number of Aedes vexans larvae in a grassland pool, nuking them, and watching them succumb endeared Joe to mosquito control for life.

AND THEN…THE NAVY: SERENDIPITY, THE SEQUEL

After finishing his master’s degree, Joe hoped to continue his education with a famous acarologist at the National University of Ireland – he really just wanted to play the Irish golf courses! – but that did not work out. And what good fortune for the United States Navy! In the meantime, his wife Diane was doing some virology research. Her major professor was a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Reserves and in the course of conversation, the professor asked Joe if he had thought about becoming a military entomologist. Joe knew nothing about this potential career field.

He went to see the military recruiter in Bowling Green, who happened to be from the Navy. There was no Army recruiter in the office. His academic record was impeccable, his prior Army performance was sterling, he knew how to kill six-legged things and he needed a job. “Sign right here, Son!” And the rest, as they say, is history. Among many other things, Joe’s Navy experience emphasized for him the profound effects that mosquito-borne disease has on populations and economies around the globe.

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Lieutenant Junior Grade (o-2) Joe Conlon graduates from Naval Education and Training Command, Newport, Rhode Island, 1982.

That is a brief look at Joe’s beginnings and career track. More importantly, let’s now examine how and when he developed some of the many skills and abilities that have served him so well.

SENSE OF HUMOR AND SINGING VOICE

Joe’s sense of humor is, well, unique! His jokes and folksy expressions – none of which can be told here – are funny, no matter how many times you hear them. This great gift came from Joe’s father, Francis Patrick Conlon (known as ‘Red’), who hailed from a small village in County Fermanagh, Ireland. Joe learned early on in his career the value of lacing his training sessions and public speaking with humor, but more on that later.

Joe’s grandmother, who spoke with a thick Irish brogue, was an indentured servant in Northern Ireland and, according to Joe, ‘hilarious.’ She had a wealth of Irish sayings including this one: “You’ll get nothin’ the sooner for waitin’ awhile.” Right! I agree completely! Joe claims that this phrase actually makes sense, which is worrisome in itself.

And if you have never heard Joe sing ‘Danny Boy,’ your life experiences are incomplete. This is not surprising, as Joe’s father, an Irish tenor, sang on northern Ohio radio. At the tender age of 8, Joe performed as a soloist at his church for weddings and funerals, earning a few extra bucks. He did that until he was 14. Wow! Oh, also at age 8, he appeared on Romper Room to sing ‘On the Street Where You Live’ from My Fair Lady. So, early and often, Joe was performing in public, growing more and more comfortable in the limelight.

WRITING SKILLS

Joe’s writing skills are second to none, and his command of the English language is impeccable. This did not come easily, however. As a sophomore at St Ignatius High School in Cleveland, he was required to write a 125-page, double-spaced term paper on ‘My Philosophy of Life!’ Yep – 125 pages!  According to Joe, the Jesuits were big on writing skills. No kidding!

The first paper Joe wrote in graduate school was returned in a sea of red ink by his major professor, Dr C Lee Rockett (known as ‘The Rockettman’) which left Joe crushed. At St Ignatius, he had developed a rather florid writing style – wouldn’t this be necessary to fill 125 pages? – but The Rockettman would have none of it! Joe took this mentoring to heart and benefitted from it, requiring no edits on his master’s thesis, ‘The Ecology of the American Dog Tick, Dermacentor variablis (Say) in Northwest Ohio.’ Thank goodness he saw the light for mosquitoes! One regret of Joe’s: “Sometimes I wished I would have attained my doctorate, as it would have lent more credibility to my work as the face of the AMCA, but my heart wasn’t into research.”

He learned to get right to the key points, which served him well in his military career as well as during his tenure with AMCA. Just take a look at the many Position Papers, especially those for AMCA’s legislative efforts, that he has written over the years: powerful, succinct, highly readable and each no more than one page – which is the key to getting them read by busy Congressional staffers.

PUBLIC SPEAKING

Joe is one of the best public speakers you will ever hear. Period. Whether it is a technical presentation, a scientific oratory, a fascinating historical piece or a roast of AMCA’s Board of Directors, you can be sure Joe’s recipe will contain a base alloy of excellent content sprinkled with poignant stories, lessons learned and excellent slides, with humor folded in throughout.

But again, this skill did not come easily; it developed slowly over time through a series of experiences. While delivering a “boring” paper on his Master’s research at the Ohio Mosquito Control Association meeting, his first professional presentation, Joe, who admitted he was scared, looked up to see The Rockettman standing at the back of the room, feverishly slashing across his throat – the universal sign for ‘stop talking NOW!’ Joe kept right on talking, rambling incessantly. Many of us have had similar experiences.

Under what circumstances did Joe become the excellent speaker that he is today?

As a Medical Entomologist in the US Navy, Joe taught many classes on insects and their biology and control. These were often given to civilian pest control personnel who may have 25 years of experience or more, so you had better be able to entertain them or you will never educate them. Joe learned how to do that. Dr Andy Beck, a civilian training instructor for the Navy, taught Joe, and many other young Navy entomologists, “Don’t tell them what you know, tell them what they need to know.” That 13-word piece of advice has been Joe’s speaking creed ever since.

He attended many, many meetings and studied the speakers and presentations intently. Joe noted the positives and negatives, emulating the former and avoiding the latter in his own talks. That strategy seems to have worked out pretty well. Before Joe really became comfortable speaking at meetings, one of his fellow entomologists, who recognized his ability, would sign him up to speak without asking him first. This demonstrates, again, the old adage that sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission!

The defining public speaking event for Joe – at the AMCA 1992 annual meeting in Corpus Christi – was when he first gave his legendary talk on his experiences while deployed to the Middle East for Operations Desert Shield/Storm. In one of the most memorable moments of his professional career, professor of microbiology “Harvey Scudder told me that my presentation on Desert Shield … was the best talk he had ever heard.” The presentation was wildly successful, so much so that speaking requests poured in after that.

Sometimes at meetings, Joe would literally squirm in his seat if a speaker was violating any of ‘Conlon’s Tenets of Public Speaking.’ And this happens quite often. So, what did he do? He put together a great talk on ‘How NOT to Give A Presentation,’ and it was a highly educational and humorous effort. And in 2006 he published the information in Wing Beats: http://www.nmca.org/conlonwingbeats.pdf.

The confidence that Joe gained from these and subsequent speaking events gave him the panache, aplomb, and ability to speak without fear, on radio and television as well as testify before the United States Congress. It also helped that he was always prepared and knew going in that he was the expert.

VENOMOUS ANIMALS EXPERT

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Joe Conlon in the desert outside of Jubail, Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in, 1990.

It may surprise you to know that Joe is a venomous animal expert of some repute. In 1976 while in the Army, he moonlighted at a serpentarium in San Marcos, Texas where on one occasion, he rescued a mother and her two children from a highly venomous snake known as the Cape cobra (Naja nivea) of near record length for the species. The creature somehow had escaped from its enclosure and had the family trapped in a corner of the viewing room! Holy reptiles, Batman! Joe sprang into action and during the fracas, suffered a near-fatal bite that required hospitalization, during which he had to be revived three times. For his actions, he was nominated for the Carnegie Medal for Heroism – the highest honor for civilian heroism in the United States and Canada. Not surprisingly, Joe declined the honor. Understandably, this incident had a lasting impact, as it demonstrated the power of Nature and imbued in Joe an appreciation for potentially lethal creatures that remains to this day.

About fifteen years later during Joe’s Navy career, he was sent to Operation Desert Shield (Google it, youngsters!) to provide, as Joe refers to it, “venomous critter oversight.” The US forces had heard tall tales about the snakes, camel spiders and ticks found in the Middle East, and there was much apprehension. Joe’s presence eased the angst to a great degree – and gained him material for one of the great presentations of all time – as he provided classes on venomous snakes and arthropods throughout the theater. In addition, because of his language skills, he translated a key to the scorpions of Saudi Arabia from the original French.

And resourceful? Joe’s middle name (not really!). No cameras were allowed many of the places Joe went, so he improvised by using a Kodak Instamatic camera that he clandestinely secured in his armpit whilst snapping away. Hey, come on! He needed the photos for his future presentations. As far as we know, the integrity and security of the mission was not compromised. The lesson here? Broaden your skill set and you will have many more opportunities in your professional career. Adventure awaits!

NEAR MISSES

By his own admission, Joe has no business being alive. During his tenure in the Navy, he was involved in two helicopter crashes, both of which should have been fatal. By the way, remember that helicopters don’t really fly – they just beat the air into submission!

The first accident was in the African country of Gabon while he was on a site survey for a field hospital. The aircraft fell onto a hut, the fuel tank ruptured, and two residents lost their lives, but no one on the aircraft was injured. Remarkably, one of the passengers, a pilot who worked for the US embassy in Zaire, turned out years later to be a teacher of Joe and Diane’s son, Brian, in elementary school in Fleming Island, Florida. And no, I am not clever enough to make that up.

The second episode occurred in Maracay, Venezuela during a high-visibility effort by the US Navy to assist in controlling a dengue fever outbreak. High viz, you say? It was coordinated through the US Department of State and during the effort, Joe met the President of Venezuela and flew on a helicopter with his two daughters. Anyway, due to a series of circumstances, another helicopter on which he was conducting adulticiding literally slammed into a powerline, with the impact shattering the windshield and sending the wounded bird autorotating down, where it landed harshly into the parking lot of a supermarket on a Friday evening. All on board should have perished but it wasn’t the time for Joe or the others. He was taken to a local clinic to have a small piece of plexiglass from the imploded windshield removed from his eye.

Experiences such as this change your whole perspective on life. I should know: I was in the second accident with Joe!

BRINGING IT ALL HOME

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Joe Conlon at his desk in his home office in 2003.

As with many of us I suppose, some of Joe’s success was pure serendipity but most of it was built on a broad platform of keen interest, varied experiences and the ability to learn from mentoring, mistakes and misgivings. What really jumps out is that he worked hard, followed his passion, and didn’t give up: a recipe for success!

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Joe Conlon wearing a Vitamin B-12 patch, being fed upon by mosquitoes during a “Today Show” shoot at the USDA laboratories in Gainesville, Florida in 2008. Dr. Ulrich Bernier is in the background, in addition to “Today Show” reporter Janice Lieberman.

Captain Stan Cope (aka the Mosquito Man) is our Vice President of Technical Services, learn more about him here: https://catchmasterpro.com/blog/stan-cope-phd/

This article has been published with permission from Wing Beats Magazine https://www.floridamosquito.org/Public/FMCA_Publications/Wing_Beats.aspx