Ray Condon’s legacy lives on
The piece was called, simply but poignantly, “The Death of Ray Condon,” and it was — it is — in my ranking, subjective as that might be, amongst the top documentaries ever produced locally by the CBC, or anywhere else for that matter.
It was aired nearly 30 years ago, so it’s perhaps understandable that a fair number of people in the province, the younger crowd especially, or those who weren’t living here at the time, would be unaware of its existence, its unique nature, its provocative content and, most importantly, the fortitude, the downright guts, it took for Ray Condon to permit the CBC to document, in amazingly uncompromising fashion, without stipulations, the last six months of his life.
I obviously thought of the documentary upon hearing this past week that an organization called Labrador West Pride was dedicating its LGTBQ campaign this year to Condon, a highly respected and immensely liked teacher who went public in 1991 with the fact that he was gay and that he had the devastating AIDS virus.
But it was one thing for Condon to publicly acknowledge his sexual identity and his illness (an act of bravery in and of itself, given the stigma attached at the time to being gay and the hysteria surrounding AIDS), quite another to expose his private life throughout the province on public television, as he did in that half-hour documentary, broadcast in the spring of 1992 on “Here and Now,” an era when nearly half the population of Newfoundland and Labrador tuned in nightly to the supper-hour news show.
If you think my four-star praise for “The Death of Ray Condon” is hyperbolic or smacks of journalistic immodesty — I was running “Here and Now” at the time — or that my adulation for Condon is exaggerated, then use whatever technological gadgetry you at have at your disposal and take a look for yourself; be your own judge; it’ll be a half hour you won’t soon forget.
Even with my considerable limitations in computer acumen, I was able to locate the documentary the other night, after hearing of Condon’s place in the Labrador West Pride agenda, viewed it for the first time in decades, and found the content had lost none of its rather astounding impact.
The genesis of “The Death of Ray Condon” took place in the fall of 1991 when we at “Here and Now” decided to search for someone diagnosed with AIDS who would be willing to let our cameras invade their privacy, to let us eavesdrop on their efforts to survive, and to talk openly about their lifestyle; that sounds awfully callous and cold, as I reflect back on the assignment, but it was an example of my life-long criteria for journalistic endeavours (not a perfect record in that regard, I will admit): first and foremost, that there be a good story to tell, and, as a bonus, that there be a healthy dose of societal value.
“The Death of Ray Condon” provided both, in extraordinary ways.
Our reporter in Labrador City at the time, Chris Norman, received Condon’s unqualified permission to document what he was enduring, and, for over six months, she and cameraman Eddie Kennedy did just that.
They were there for the relatively good days, when Condon was reading and listening to classical music, or helping to decorate a Christmas tree with his relatives, or shopping in Labrador City, or enjoying a family meal.
Norman and Kennedy also followed Condon as he visited schools in Labrador City and spoke openly and candidly about his homosexuality and his illness; the response of the students, many of whom he had taught, was emotional and loving.
But they were also there with him in Montreal when he was being told by a doctor that his diminishing eyesight, a direct result of AIDS, would only get worse.
Some of the rawest and most heartrending segments occur when it becomes obvious that Condon does not have much time left, but continues to talk with incredible frankness about his decision to reduce his medical treatment, the fact that he does not fear death, that he has made peace with “his maker,” but that he doesn’t wish to be a “strain” on his loved ones.
There is a remarkable segment (one of many) when his mother visits him in his hospital room. They embrace, and he shows her how much weight he’s lost.
Mrs. Condon makes a valiant but heartbroken and futile effort to put her son’s dramatic weight loss in a good light:
“It’s not too bad,” she says. “You never were fat.”
Condon had let his family know that the CBC crew was to be permitted to continue shooting even after his own ability to communicate was compromised, and such openness allowed Kennedy to be in the room when Condon received the last rites of the Catholic Church and, later, just minutes after Condon has died and his family has gathered at his bedside to say goodbye.
His mother leans over and kisses his forehead; other family members do the same.
One of the last shots is Mrs. Condon walking down the hospital corridor, a portrait of immense sorrow.
Condon was determined that he would educate beyond the grave, as he phrased it, that his messages of tolerance and the critical importance of being “responsible” when engaging in sexual activity would be delivered and heard long after he had died.
Those are messages that still resonate today.
The CBC would be performing a huge public service if it could find a way to re-broadcast “The Death of Ray Condon.”