The Amazing J.D. Conger story

When your editor was a student at Calaveras High School, two of the students he liked and admired were James Conger and Joyce Conger. They were both classy young people and reflected, I always thought, having really good parents. When I last saw Joyce, she was off to Stanford to pursue her MD.
I’m not sure what management job their father, J.D..  had in the West Point mills, or even in which of the mills he worked, so until now, about all I knew about the senior Congers was that they raised great kids.


So the point of my telling you this is that I found this article in the Sacramento Bee, and thought it belonged in this section of our web site. Married 81 years and still in love.  Amazing!

John Hofstetter, editor, webmaster

A spouse dies, then soon, another: The widowhood effect

By Anita Creamer
Published: Monday, Jan. 31, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Jan. 31, 2011 – 6:38 am

JD Conger told everyone he couldn’t live without his wife, Opal.

He took care of her as her dementia deepened and she slowly faded. But even during her last difficult year, they relied on each other: Frail as she was, she translated the world for him, making up for his failing eyes and ears.

When Opal Conger died at age 97 on the morning of Jan. 13, they’d been husband and wife for 81 years, partners in a marriage so enduring that they were the subjects of a Bee story a year ago. While it’s left to younger, dreamier generations to describe long-married couples as the loves of each other’s lives, the Congers’ devotion was clearly an unbreakable bond.

And so JD followed Opal into death just after dawn not 48 hours after she died. He was 101 and he was true to his word.

“He was not going to be here without her,” said the Congers’ granddaughter, Sue Seaters, 55, a Placer County public health nurse. “He went to bed and didn’t get up.”

As Seaters sat by his bedside in his final hours, he twice lifted her hand to his face and held it to his cheek. Maybe he knew it was his granddaughter – or maybe he thought it was his Opal.

Researchers have a name for the increased probability of death among grieving mates within weeks or months of their spouses’ passing: the “widowhood effect.”

Among elderly couples, according to Harvard University sociologists, men are 22 percent more likely to die shortly after the death of a spouse, compared with 17 percent for women.

And a National Institute on Aging study found that race plays a part in the widowhood effect, with white partners aged 67 or older more likely than elderly African Americans to succumb early in bereavement.

Findings on the widowhood effect don’t come as news to medical professionals, who have observed similar patterns of increased mortality.

“We’ve all had experiences with this kind of thing,” said Trish Caputo, Sutter Auburn Faith Hospice bereavement coordinator and a registered nurse. “Often, it’s unrelated to any accident or cardiovascular incident, but sometimes it is related. That can be part of the stress reaction to grief.

“I’ve had at least three bereaved spouses who’ve fractured a hip within a week of their loved one’s death, one at the funeral of the spouse.”

Complicating the fog of grief is the fact that elderly caregiving spouses like JD Conger are at a 63 percent greater risk of death than older people not caring for their mates, according to American Medical Association research.

Traditional gender roles play a part in the widowhood effect, too: While women seek connection – a trait that serves them well after the death of a spouse – men’s drive for independence can leave them isolated and lonely, said Barbara Gillogly, a licensed marriage and family therapist and American River College’s gerontology department chair.

“It’s just the difference between men and women and how we’re socialized,” she said. “Connection helps us negotiate old age. Independence does not do us well.”

With his wife’s death, she said, it’s possible that JD Conger lost his meaning in life.

“His job was done,” said Gillogly.

To the people who knew them in their last days, the timing of the Congers’ deaths is both sweet and sad – not tragic, simply poignant.

“They were so attached to each other,” said Virginia Stone, marketing director at Carmichael Oaks Senior Living, where the Congers lived for the past few years.

“They kept each other going. It’s such a touching love story. One of the things JD said when she passed was, ‘How can I go on without her?’ “

He once told his granddaughter that he’d live to 105 if Opal could find the strength to live to 100.

“They had each other, but their bodies were wearing out,” said Seaters.

After they died, she asked her father and her aunt if she could keep her grandparents’ wedding rings as a symbol of their lasting devotion. But Opal’s rings had slipped off her frail hand and seemed lost.

It turned out that someone – perhaps JD, a retired lumber mill supervisor – had the practicality to stash the rings in the dresser, safely knotted in the toe of a sock.

“It’s that love they had for each other,” said Seaters. “They were hardworking people. You didn’t see that love every day. But it was there.”

Until death parted them, and beyond.


  1. Bob Fischer Says: February 21, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    Dear John,
    I got your e-mail. Thanks. James Conger was a junior and Joyce a sophomore at Calaveras High when I was a senior. I remember being in Miss Cruden’s Latin class with James. I am periodically in touch with James or Jim as he now goes by. He is a retired communications engineer living in Brookings, Oregon. I can send you his address if you like.

    The Congers were from Merced Falls, like Charles Gray, Harry Oatman, Eldon Laster, Hubert Arnold, Ed Clark, and I don’t know who all else at West Point and Wilseyville. J.D. was yard superintendant at Wilseyville. J.D. and my dad had a mutual respect and appreciation for each other. In fact, J.D. offerred a job at Wilseyville to my dad who was pondering it at the time he died. For this reason J.D. did my dad the favor of hiring me at the Wilseyville planing mill the summer of my sophomore year in college. For that I will always be grateful. The next summer after my father had died, J.D. again hired me and put me up in the company bunkhouse.

    Toward the end of that summer he moved me from tallyman at the planing mill to the yard office to learn about inventory control. It was a nice gesture and advancement opportunity which I passed at the time because I wanted to finish college. J.D. was very good to me, and retains a fond spot in my memories.

    Incidentally, in your Wilseyville article you say you don’t know if the dry kilns were ever used. They definitely were. All best wishes.

  2. Tina Jones Says: April 5, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    Opal and J.D. were my Great-Grandparents and have had a major impact on my life. I have many fond childhood memories of hunting Easter eggs in their gorgeous yard, hearing Grandpa’s unbelievable, but true, tales of mischief, and picking out perfectly ripe melons the way they taught me. It is so nice to hear from others about the impact they made in their lifetimes. One thing I will never forget is how I never heard my Grandpa say, “Goodbye.” Instead he would wave and smile and say, “So long.”

  3. Jonathan Daniel Conger Says: April 17, 2013 at 2:03 am

    Thank you so much for this beautiful article. I cannot tell you how much it means to me for you to keep this history going. Not only for my family, but for all the great families that came from the amazing men that worked in this trade. I know my family truly appreciates it. Thanks for helping keep their legacy alive.

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