Barber B. Conable, Jr., former distinguished professor and recipient of an honorary doctor of law from UR who served as a Republican member of Congress before heading the World Bank for five years, died Sunday of complications of a staph infection in Florida. The Wyoming County native was 81.
“Barber Conable was a distinguished member of Congress – a very, very intelligent man who was able to transcend petty political interests to faithfully serve his constituency and the nation,” Vice President and General Secretary Paul Burgett said.
Conable was first elected to Congress in 1964, representing a district that included parts of Rochester and Monroe County as well as all of Genesee, Wyoming, Orleans and Livingston counties. For 20 years he represented the area that included his hometown of Alexander.
During his tenure, he was known for his independent mind and ability to form alliances across the aisle. Although Conable was always in the minority, he was able to use his knowledge of the legislative process to secure unexpected victories. Conable spent 18 of his years on the hill on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, including eight as the ranking Republican.
While in Washington, Conable made connections with many people, including Vice President Dick Cheney.
“I can’t help coming back to Rochester and thinking about an old friend of mine, Barber Conable. I know Barber is not here today, but I know Barber represented part of this area for many, many years,” Cheney said when he visited Rochester on Nov. 17. “He was a superb member of Congress and I enjoyed immensely my service with him. He took me under his wing when I got elected and showed me the ropes.”
Focusing on tax legislation, Conable’s experiences in Congress led to his appointment to the presidency of the World Bank by former President Ronald Reagan in 1986. During his nearly five years at the helm, Conable used his adeptness at working with people from different ideological viewpoints to double its capital to $171 billion.
Despite his conservative positions in Congress, Conable was best known for his liberal policies during his time at the World Bank. He engineered a shift in the disbursement of funds, encouraged education in birth control, insisted on noting environmental impacts in all engineering projects and pursued other policies that were designed to specifically relieve poverty.After his retirement, Conable caught flack from former President George H. W. Bush for his shift in focus.
“I thought I was there to help poor people,” Conable said in response to criticism.
Conable attended Warsaw High School and then Cornell University. After graduating from Cornell in 1942, he served in World War II as a U.S. Marine, including the battle of Iwo Jima. Upon returning home after the war, Conable earned a law degree from his alma mater and opened a law practice.
During the Korean War, Conable was recalled to active duty in the Marines.
In 1984, UR awarded Conable an honorary doctorate of law and became a distinguished professor.
“His intellect was dazzling,” Burgett said.
Conable attended numerous events at the university and appeared as recently as 2000, when he spoke at the designation of River Campus arboretums. Whenever he spoke, Conable was known for his insight and depth of knowledge.
“He was erudite. He was a scholar,” Burgett said. “I always felt, after talking to Barber, that I had just had a beautiful lesson in some aspect of American history or Native American life, of which he knew a great deal.”Funeral services for Conable will be held at the convenience of the family. Memorials may be sent to Genesee County United Way, 81 Main St., Batavia, 14020 or The Wyoming Foundation, Box 6, Warsaw, 14569.
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