About Sam

Sam Conti: Gifted healer, bridge builder.

by Morris Dalla Costa, February 1998

If there was a bridge to build, the little man could build it.

If there was a rift, the little man had a gift to heal it.

To be around Sam Conti was to be around peace.

On Sunday, a long line snaked its way outside Dufferin Hall as friends, relatives and the many people Conti touched came to celebrate his life. Many of them attended so that he could, yet again, give them peace.That’s how he lived.

Conti, 46, was the executive director of the John Gordon Home. He died Thursday from complications after surgery.

Executive director was his official title. But Conti wasn’t big on titles. He wasn’t big on formalities. He wasn’t big on can’t-dos.

He also wasn’t particularly big on being canonized either. That’s why he would have pooh-poohed some of the wonderful tributes paid him on Sunday. After all, he would have regarded everything everyone said about him Sunday as simply the right thing to do.

Conti was a founding member of the first John Gordon Home, and a driving force behind the establishment of the new home on Pall Mall Street. It’s a hospice for people living with AIDS and HIV-related illnesses.

His public accomplishments have been many and well-documented.

His strength, though, was his personality. It was virtually impossible to come away after meeting him without a feeling of warmth, security and of being valued. Those who used the John Gordon Home probably felt all of that.

As befits Conti’s desire for privacy, few knew he was HIV positive. He never dwelled on it. He never complained, even when his health wasn’t the greatest. He was never discouraged by bureaucracy, never defeated by ignorance, never stymied by obstacles, never sidetracked by the at-time highly charged political atmosphere which surrounded London and the gay community. He simply drove on in an effort to build a dream.

“He wanted no special privileges due to his HIV status,” said Betty Anne Thomas, a good friend and director of the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection. “But first and foremost, he didn’t want people he cared about to worry.”

A man who wouldn’t want to be canonized but who can hardly avoid it.

“He was a healer,” said David Wighton, Conti’s partner of eight years. “He wasn’t a reactionary. He always tried to build bridges. (His death) was something no one expected. But in talking to his mom, I think that maybe it was just his time. The John Gordon Home was built. He got funding for the gardens… He’d done a lot of neat things he wanted to get done. It was all in order.”

His kindness and understanding was beyond the understanding of many. Even during the explosive episode involving Mayor Dianne Haskett’s refusal to issue a Gay Pride Weekend proclamation, Conti worked toward peace, rising above the politics and the self-interest.

Wighton said he remembers Conti telling him the mayor was reluctant to attend the opening of the John Gordon Home if it would cause a problem. “But Sam said (to the mayor), ‘Of course you should be there.’ That’s the way he was.”

The mayor was at Conti’s memorial service on Sunday.

“He went through an awful lot but he never complained,” said Wighton.

“Everything he did, he did to make things better for those who needed it.  I remember when his first partner, Ron, died of AIDS, Sam was working in a local funeral home.  The funeral home wasn’t comfortable working with someone who had died with AIDS and told Sam that they would do the service but that the coffin would be empty and the body would remain at the morgue.  Only he and they would know.  Sam went to another home and they treated everyone with respect.  That’s all he wanted.

“The last three weeks have been a blur,” said Wighton. “He loved his family. They loved me.  We were soulmates.  When we first met, I didn’t know if I wanted a relationship because it just took too much work.  I found out that it didn’t take any work at all. I haven’t really realized he’s gone yet.  But now, when everyone goes home and I look at his picture, I’ll remember what I lost.”

What good people leave behind ensures they are never forgotten.

There’s the John Gordon Home.

And Sunday at the memorial service, there was as much laughter as there were tears.

Just the way Sam would have wanted it.