Ten years ago, as Marilyn Eylar Conaway (’56 Hist.) rowed an inflatable boat on an Alaskan lake, she pictured herself as a girl working the oars of her father’s handmade boat.
The thought recalled the simple joys of an idyllic childhood in Grand Coulee, where her father had helped build the dam. But both of Conaway’s parents and three of her six siblings had since died, her husband Gerry’s heart was faltering, she herself had heart disease, and she was about to end a storied career in education.
That day, memory became mission: Conaway didn’t want to rock a chair; she wanted to row a boat.
“She doesn’t know that things can’t be done,” says Sharon Clawson, a fellow teacher who in the 1970s watched Conaway help establish one of Alaska’s first alternative schools.
Since that day on the lake, the woman who charted new waters in Alaska’s schools became one of the state’s first senior rowers to medal in national competitions. Before the current season, she had amassed 10 medals in races from the Moose Nugget Miler in Anchorage to the World Masters Games in Australia.
Conaway grew up in an era when most girls didn’t play competitive sports. She swam, skied, rode horses, and led school cheers, and was still active when a heart attack struck at age 35. But when she took up competitive rowing at 63, she was out of shape, having suffered angina throughout her life.
She became the oldest member of the Anchorage Rowing Association, which formed in 1998 with strong Washington State University ties and some of the school’s used equipment. Three younger alumni-all competitive rowers in college-boosted Conaway’s development as a rower: Andi Day (’91 Hist.), Marietta “Ed” Hall (’91 Fin.), and Shannon Lipscy Jensen (’95 Nat. Resource Sci.).
“Every year she got fitter and stronger and better,” says Day, who with Jensen was one of Conaway’s early coaches.
As a novice, Conaway was so determined to compete in her first race that she trained daily on rowing machines in Seattle, where Gerry awaited a heart transplant. The rest of her eight-woman crew remained in Anchorage until she joined them for Seattle’s Frostbite Regatta.
Conaway was beached after she rowed one of her best competitions, the 2005 World Masters Games in Canada. Two “pre-heart attacks” forced her to withdraw from the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston that fall. She rowed again last summer but succumbed to clogged carotid arteries. After two surgeries, she was back on the water this past June.
“Seeing Marilyn row, that’s the most gratifying thing about starting this team,” says Hall. “It’s not like it’s been easy for her to row. She could’ve had a million great excuses to give it up.”
Ilone (Long) Lee (’57 Sp.; ’63 M.A. Elem. Ed.), a fellow WSU cheerleader, knows her friend doesn’t want excuses. “She’d get a bee in her bonnet and go after it, and it would happen,” says Long, recounting how Conaway transformed the WSU squad as “yell queen” during her junior year. As a senior, Conaway was elected student body secretary.
From her teens through a master’s degree from Columbia University, Conaway worked 13 summers as a waitress at the Green Hut below Grand Coulee Dam. She credits that, along with her parents’ influence and WSU leadership opportunities, with honing her ability to work with people.
During her first teaching job, at Bothell High School, she concluded “that the world would be a better place if more students were in charge more of the time.” Under her direction, Bothell students attracted major-party gubernatorial candidates to the state’s first mock political convention. Bothell’s second convention also brought Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues in the 20th century.
Similar successes followed in Alaska. In the 1970s, she teamed with a group of parents and children to found Steller Secondary School in Anchorage. With Conaway at the helm, Steller students became stellar learners with greater control of their educations.
Clawson, a Steller teacher, remembers Conaway being “undaunted” by opposition to the alternative school and a narrow board approval of four to three. More than 30 years later, Steller thrives as one of America’s Blue Ribbon Schools. Alumni include Anchorage mayor Mark Begich and folk singer Jewel.
Conaway went on to lead innovative programs elsewhere in the district, win numerous professional awards, and retire as principal of Alaska’s largest high school. Throughout, she never wavered in her belief that people who make more decisions become better learners and leaders. Some lessons don’t end upon graduation-or retirement.
“You can develop a new interest or start a new project at any time in your life. It doesn’t matter when it is,” she says. “The more you do after you qualify for AARP, the better off you are.”