Ray Con­don’s le­gacy lives on

Northern Pen - - Front page - Bob Wake­ham Bob Wake­ham has spent more than 40 years as a jour­nal­ist in New­found­land and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwake­ham@nl.rogers.com

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.”

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