To South Country Schools Board of Education:
South Country School District has a history of honoring retired administrators by naming a school building (Verne W. Critz and Frank P.Long) in their honor. I think the time has come to do so for one of South Country’s first Afro-American administrators.
I would like to request that the South Country School District honor John Conquest by renaming the Bellport Middle School in his honor. I suggest this because the middle school is where John worked for many years, helping to mold the futures of thousands of South Country students. It also sits at the gateway to our village district and would serve to emphasize the multicultural harmony in our district, which he had such a large part in creating.
John came to South Country when the district, like many multicultural districts on Long Island, was being forced to deal with emerging racial issues. John served as Community Coordinator, and both middle school and high school assistant principal during his years of service to South Country. He was called back as an AP on several occasions, whenever the district had a problem they knew from experience that he could handle.
Coach Conquest was a volunteer coach in South Country School District during every sport season he was employed here. He coached summer league teams and continued to coach and advise in retirement. In his years in South Country, John was the go-to guy, not only for teachers/coaches and student/athletes with whom he had strong bond, but for all school/community problems and issues. John was and still is respected by students, staff and community alike.
Being sent to JC’s office was not something students looked forward to. At the same time, students needing help with personal problems or in need of advice were quick to seek his council. Many, now as young adults with families of their own, still do.
I hope you will review John's record and accomplishments, and act favorably on this request.
James P. McGowan
June 5, 2020
Dear South Country School Board,
Before I speak on Mr. John Conquest, I would like to take some brief time to introduce myself. My name is Matthew Still, and I spent the majority of my childhood galivanting around the halls of Bellport High School. My father, LeRoy Still Jr., was a Physical Education teacher and coach in the district from 1975-2006. When I was younger, I was attached to my dad’s hip and spent many days when I was not in school running around the hallways or the practice fields. I loved Bellport; I loved Bellport so much that after finishing my freshman year at South Ocean Avenue in Patchogue I made the decision to transfer to Bellport. In 2000, I graduated in the Top 10% of my class, went on to earn my BA in History/Secondary Education from St. Joseph’s College while coaching football and tennis at Bellport, and later earned MAs from UCF (History) and Queens College (Media/Information Science). I recently accepted a position in Ephraim, UT where I will teach and coach football at Snow College.
The reason for my introduction is two-fold, the first and most obvious being that with my background I know a great deal about the recent history of South Country School District. The second, is simply the fact that by contemporary norms I would be considered a successful individual, and I am quite certain that I wouldn’t have had nearly the success I’ve encountered in life without the intervention of John E. Conquest. So that leads me to John E. Conquest the man.
I met John Conquest when I was a kid running around the school and fields. Like the other coaches, John Conquest was “Uncle John” to me and often went out of his way to include me in drills and make me feel like I was a part of the team. Even from a young age I could tell that John had a special presence about him and most of what I learned about John came from discussions with my father. John was an extremely humble man and even though his suits were flashy, he wasn’t one to regale you with stories about how important he was.
So what did I learn about John from my father? I learned that John experienced racism and hatred in his childhood that I was lucky enough to never witness in the Bellport halls or community. I learned that John lived and grew up on what was Gallo’s duck farm in East Patchogue, which actually fell in the boundaries of South Country School District. I learned that John’s sister had a problem at school one day and when John’s father went to talk to the principal about it, he referred to John’s sister with a racial slur. John’s father immediately pulled all of his children out of South Country Schools and enrolled them in Patchogue-Medford Schools.
John graduated from Patchogue-Medford High School and went to Morgan State where he flourished. He was a captain of the football team and was a founder of the social fellowship Groove Phi Groove, which is today one of the most renowned and respected fraternities in HBCUs. John moved back home after school and quickly found his calling.
John started out at Bellport during a time of extreme racial tensions. My father and Coach Moose McGowan often told me how John was the primary mediator during the race riots that occurred during the early 70s and he was so effective in his new administrative role that he was named “Community Organizer.” Really what that position entailed was driving into North Bellport and dealing with the impoverished area of the district when no one else wanted to.
What amazed me about John was throughout my experiences with him as an administrator, was despite all the prejudices that he faced, he treated every child that walked through the doors at Bellport the same. I used to think he gave me preferential treatment because I was my father’s son, but as I grew I saw he was that way with everyone. He had the uncanny ability to know exactly what you needed, whether it be a shoulder to cry on, a word of advice, or a stern lecture. It wasn’t unusual to walk past Coach’s Office and see kids doing extra work, eating lunch, just hanging out. John went the extra mile.
Being an administrator put John in the difficult position where he was unable to receive payment for coaching or chaperoning. What did John do? He worked for approximately 30 years as a volunteer coach without taking a dime from the district. We’re talking about football, basketball, track and then summer ball, all the while usually pulling up with a car full of kids that he had just picked up and bought lunch for. I also vividly remember Coach Conquest on almost every field trip and at every school dance... he never took a dollar for it. John lived his life for the children in community.
I’m sure there’s a lot I’m leaving out. I have no idea about any awards or accolades that John earned during his tenure at South Country School District and for that reason I ask that you review his file. 7 years ago I came before the Board at the time with a petition of over 1500 names to rename the Middle School after John and, unfortunately, I did not receive the outpouring of support I expected from the community and very little support from the Board. As you probably know, they tabled the issue and then established Policy 3180, which states that, “the Board shall not name or rename any building for an individual.” Whether a school is renamed after John or not, I would strongly encourage you to revisit this policy, as I believe it is a huge mistake to not honor those who have made a positive impact in the schools with this distinction. We’ve already done so with Verne W. Critz and Frank P. Long, why would we stop now?
It is my sincere hope that Policy 3180 is changed, John’s record is reviewed, and a decision is rendered one way or another. The new petition that is currently circulating has swelled to nearly 4000 signatures and, hopefully, you receive emails from other alums and take some time to read the comments attached to the petition; they are overwhelmingly touching. If this doesn’t get the groundswell traction I feel it deserves so be it, at least I know I fought strongly for a change I feel is befitting the first black administrator to work in this awesome school district.
Thank you for taking the time to read this lengthy email, I know you are dealing with a tremendous amount of change in schools right now; however, the window to honor John E. Conquest’s legacy is closing and I would hate for that window to close forever.
Bellport High School Class of 2000
School Board Response
The original letter was sent to the
South Country School Board
on June 05, 2020.
It has never been acknowledged.
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