A Life: Chris Conant ‘was such a selfless person’

Chris Conant next to his sister Hilary Conant's car when they were cruising around roads in Sullivan County and listening to music in 2017. (Family photograph)

Chris Conant next to his sister Hilary Conant's car when they were cruising around roads in Sullivan County and listening to music in 2017. (Family photograph) Family photographs

Chris Conant with the family Basset Hound, named Arthur, at his mother Carol Hanna's house in Acworth, N.H., in the mid-1980s. Chris was born in 1970. (Family photograph)

Chris Conant with the family Basset Hound, named Arthur, at his mother Carol Hanna's house in Acworth, N.H., in the mid-1980s. Chris was born in 1970. (Family photograph)

Chris Conant with his grandmother, Aune Lepisto Conant, on her 99th birthday in 2017 at the Sullivan County Health Care nursing home in Unity, N.H. (Family photograph)

Chris Conant with his grandmother, Aune Lepisto Conant, on her 99th birthday in 2017 at the Sullivan County Health Care nursing home in Unity, N.H. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Chris Conant climbing a tree at his grandmother. Josephine Aiken's home, in Charlestown in the late 1970s or early 1980s. (Family photograph)

Chris Conant climbing a tree at his grandmother. Josephine Aiken's home, in Charlestown in the late 1970s or early 1980s. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Chris Conant visits his mother, Carol Hanna, in Baja, Mexico, in the winter of 2020 just before the national shutdown hit in March. (Family photograph)

Chris Conant visits his mother, Carol Hanna, in Baja, Mexico, in the winter of 2020 just before the national shutdown hit in March. (Family photograph) —

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-10-2023 8:27 PM

Modified: 12-11-2023 7:28 AM


CHARLESTOWN — Carol Glidden remembers the time she first saw Chris Conant.

Glidden was about to enter a friend’s home in Charlestown on a Friday summer evening in 1998 when she caught sight of a guy standing on a sulky behind a lawnmower as he rode the machine, like a buggy behind a pony, to a nearby home.

“There was Chris standing on the back of the lawnmower coming down the street with a 30-pack of beer on his shoulder,” Glidden recalled, relating a moment in time that she remembers as typical Chris: fun, rebellious and disdainful of authority.

When he wasn’t walking or peddling a bike — he never regained a driver’s license after racking up numerous DUIs — Chris Conant sometimes tooled around Charlestown on a lawnmower to get to a friend’s place or the convenience store to buy cigarettes and beer.

On that first day, Glidden and Chris struck up a conversation and he invited her to come over for beers in his friend’s backyard.

So began a quarter-century friendship for which Glidden said she is deeply grateful because Chris — whose adult life was marred by poverty, alcoholism and a body badly burned in a house fire — was the gentlest and kindest person she ever met.

“If Chris had the means, he would help you,” Glidden said. “He’d pitch in for food and beer when he and the guys were watching football at my house even though he barely had a dime. He had a heart of gold but was very blunt. If he didn’t like you, you’d know it.”

Alternately a gentle soul and a tortured soul, Chris lived life on his own terms, and didn’t much care what people thought of him.

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Some in Charlestown saw him as a ne’er do well who was always asking people for rides or caging “loans” of a few bucks that it went without saying he’d never pay back.

Others knew Chris for who he really was: a stumbling angel whose giving to family and friends far repaid whatever he took from them, whatever scrape he was rescued from, whatever worry he caused those who loved him.

Chris Conant died on Dec. 17, 2022, at the Jack Byrne Center for Palliative & Hospice Care at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, where he had spent 21 days in intensive and palliative care after he was assaulted by another man over an alleged stolen backpack while sitting on his favorite street bench in the center of town. He was 53.

At a celebration of Chris’ life in July at the Charlestown Town Hall, family and friends gathered to share memories and swap stories about a beloved but troubled man who was — in the words of one attendee — “sometimes inappropriate” but who was fiercely loved nonetheless for his loyalty and willingness to give to others, “even when he didn’t have anything himself,” said Alyssa Rhoades, for whom Chris took on the role of “big brother or uncle” after her own uncle, one of Chris’ close friends, died when she was 9 years old.

At one end of the Town Hall room Chris’ sister, Hilary Conant, laid out a table of photos and keepsakes — an old pair of Chris’ work boots had a bouquet of flowers placed in them — commemorating her brother. On the wall she hung up a sign she scrawled when she was 8 years old: “cris conant got groded for skiping school and smoking and driking beer.”

Her brother would probably have a different idea on how to celebrate his life, Hilary Conant admitted.

“He’d be, like, ‘Hey, let’s have a bonfire and drink beer!’ ” she laughed.

Growing up in Charlestown, where his father, Roger Conant — like his father, David Conant, before him — worked at Fellows Gear Shaper in Springfield, Vt., Chris was the kind of kid who “was both a sweetheart and a little bit of what-can-we-do-to-get-in-trouble-today,” recalled his mother, Carol Aiken Hanna, now retired and living in Mexico,

With a toothy smile and a mop of thick blonde hair, Chris was quiet and could come across at times as a bit nerdy, like his habit of buttoning his shirts at the neck. But, like all boys, there was a “little devil” in him, his mother said, such as the time he and a friend took a couple saws and sawed off the branches of a carefully planted row of trees near his home.

As he entered puberty, a more daredevil side began to emerge in her brother, Hilary Conant said. Chris loved racing around on his BMX bike with buddies — their father even built a bike jumping ramp and made Chris get permission notes for his friends from their parents. He had a boy’s natural sense of humor for “anything gross because it would get a reaction and a rise out of us,” his sister said.

Chris loved hanging out — close to his family’s house — with his friends, drinking beer. Although playing team sports did not interest him, he was a mean water skier on the river, family members said.

A passion for head-banging rock music — AC/DC and Black Sabbath were his favorites — was often heard pounding from a portable player he lugged around. Chris wasn’t shy to advertise his rebel rock-n-roll spirit, either: when it came time to dress for school pictures, he chose a T-shirt with the tart tongue-and-mouth logo of The Rolling Stones on it.

Then there was the time, 13 years old and upstairs in his room, Chris and his pals cranked up AC/DC’s “Big Balls” with its boastful lyrics about male endowment so loud that it could be across the neighborhood. His stepmother, Connie Conant, who was in the kitchen at the time, turned blue and rushed upstairs to intercede before neighbors started calling.

“He loved that kind of music, right up until the day he passed,” Connie Conant said.

Never interested in school, Chris nonetheless had a gifted and strong mechanical aptitude like his father and grandfather. He would spend hours in the garage tinkering on his motorcycle, diagnosing and fixing whatever was broken on his own.

“He was not a stupid kid by any stretch. If they had tested him I think they probably would have found him at the upper end. He just picked things up naturally,” Chris’ mother, Carol Hanna, said.

An animal lover, Chris had a soft spot in his heart for animals and came up with inventive names for a series of pets, including a succession of cats named Satan, Lefty Jam and Gun Powder.

“He loved all animals, especially dogs, but cats were his favorite,” Alyssa Rhoades said.

He taught his dog, Nickner, to do tricks and with one of them, which he dubbed “the Evel Knievel” — family members don’t recall what it entailed — Chris claimed first place in a contest and got his picture in the newspaper.

“He was very proud of that,” Hanna said.

His paternal grandfather is remembered as one of the pillars of Charlestown for his many civic accomplishments, and the Conant name came with expectations traced to a long and proud New England history. But Chris had never harbored “any aspirations other than finding a good job when he got out” of school, his mother said.

After high school, Chris went to work for a construction company owned by his stepfather, Jim Hanna. There, he learned woodworking and made his mother a bookcase and “mirror with a beautiful frame around it. It wasn’t a regular 9-to-5 job but he loved it. He was happy,” Carol Hanna, said.

He then got a job as a “driller’s helper” with M & W Soils Engineering, of Charlestown, which he truly loved, said family members and Randy Rhoades, then an engineer with the company and now owner.

It was a natural step: the company’s parked drill rigs were a few blocks away from the Conants’ home on Eaton Street. (Years later Chris was to play an important role in assuring Alyssa’s mother that her daughter couldn’t do better than marrying Randy).

“It was a physical job and Chris had a demanding boss,” said Randy Rhoades.

The roughneck work regardless of season or weather conditions, which required anticipating what equipment the site boss would require for a job without being told, takes both physical strength and mental alertness, both attributes Chris possessed.

“He showed up every day. He did well and he didn’t complain, at least not more than anyone else,” Rhoades said. “There were a lot of people that came and went but Chris was steady with it.”

Chris and the friends in his circle all went by nicknames they gave each other. Chris went by “Coco,” short for coconut. His best friends were “Boomer” and “Cabby,” the latter shortened from “Cabbage Head.”

“He called me ‘The Kid,’ ” Alyssa Rhoades said, or when talking about Alyssa and her best friend together, Chris addressed them as “Salad Shooters.”

“My mom was a single mom. It was just her and I. When her brother, my uncle, died, I remember Chris, Boomer and Cabby all just stepping in like uncles to take care of us. Chris was there for every birthday party. He would buy us pizza, Chinese food. He was such a selfless person,” Alyssa Rhoades.

Although Chris had a predisposition to recklessness and scrapes, he still managed to take care of himself, family members and friends said. But that changed in 2001, when he fell asleep while smoking, igniting a house fire that burned 32% of his upper body and required a lengthy hospital stay and skin grafts.

His mother, Carol Hanna, remembers staying with Chris in his hospital room and seeing a large red blotch of burned skin exposed and her son in deep pain. She would sleep in a chair with a pillow.

“And he looks at me and me and says, ‘Mom are you comfortable?’ I think, oh my God. Here he is with this bloody red wound on him and he wants to know if I’m comfortable? But that’s who he was. He was always concerned about other people,” Carol Hanna said.

In the years following the fire, Chris worked on the grounds crew and maintenance at Fall Mountain Regional High School, from where he and his sisters all graduated. That lasted until his supervisor, with whom he was also friends and gave him lifts to and from work, had health issues himself and couldn’t work any longer.

Afterward, Chris went on disability and picked up the odd job here and there, mowing a lawn or yard cleaning. But even that became difficult when he had to have a pinkie finger, which had been severely damaged in the fire, amputated. He wouldn’t use the gloves or apply the medical cream doctors said he would be required to do if he wanted to save it.

“He had a stubborn side to him,” Carol Hanna, his mother said.

This past summer Hilary Conant petitioned the Charlestown Selectboard on placing a memorial plaque on behalf of her brother, Chris, on the bench between Jiffy Mart and Sumner House on Main Street where he was assaulted on Nov. 26, 2022. The assailant pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in Sullivan County Superior Court in Sept. 14 and was sentenced to three to seven years in state prison.

The “plaque would assist with the collective healing of the Charlestown community; a community which has historically been celebrated as a quintessential New England town; a town where citizens rally in support of each other; a town where everyone feels like family,” Hilary Conant wrote in her letter to the Selectboard.

On July 17, 2023, the Charlestown Selectboard unanimously voted in favor of the plaque to place on the bench in memory of Chris Conant.

Hilary Conant said she is currently designing the plaque and deciding what it will say in honor of her brother. She aims to hold a “small ceremony” for its placement in the spring “when the weather is nicer.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.