About Sam

Sam Conti: An average guy with Olympian dreams.

by Donald D’Haene, February 1998

A who’s who of the London community turned out for the February 15 memorial service for Sam Conti, executive director and founding member of the John Gordon Home (a hospice for people living with HIV and AIDS).

Standing room only found gay activists, Homophile Association of London Ontario’s (HALO) presidents (past and present), Regional HIV/AIDS Connection’s (ACOL) director, and London’s Mayor Dianne Haskett rubbing shoulder to shoulder. All came out to sincerely pay Conti their last respects.

That mere months after the Mayor’s loss of the Human Rights Case, these opposing forces would unite under one roof is a testament to Conti - an average guy with Olympian dreams.

Conti laid the foundation for his dreams early. A decade ago he enrolled in ACOL’s volunteer course. Conti, the street-smart, quick learner that he was, recognized ACOL as the hard-hitting, politically in your face organization it was. His dream – to make a hospice specifically for HIV and AIDS patients in a peaceful neutral zone – became a national model.

In an interview earlier this week, his partner of eight years, David Wighton said, “Sam wanted the John Gordon Home (JGH) warm and fuzzy… He saw the big picture. It wasn’t just about the gay community. He was careful not alienate politicians.” Conti proved to be a contender on a scale that surprised some of his peers. Wighton acknowledged, “early on Sam was underestimated. But he knew he had to be the one to do the work.” And work he did.

Conti was treasurer for the JGH in ’93, becoming executive director in ’94. He was also treasurer of the Ontario AIDS Network. He convinced the Health Ministry to pay for 24-hour staffing, then Queen’s Park to build the present JGH. The fact this ‘average guy’ Conti could unite the Ministries of Health and Housing to work hand in hand towards a common goal was in itself most unusual.

London is famous for a “you can’t do that” mentality. But, “it has to be done” Conti could do the impossible. The city’s own Orchestra London sponsors a yearly event call Interiors, in which a home is chosen and local designers work their magic room by room. Before the new JGH was even built, Conti approached Orchestra London with the idea of Interiors being staged at the home in time for its opening. This was considered impossible.

Conti’s mission was accomplished in a far reaching way. His idea put the JGH on the map above and beyond the gay community. The John Gordon Home became a household name.

Conti fulfilled one of the last legs of his dream as recently as last month. Wighton told me, “Sam lobbied for funding for a healing garden, complete with therapeutic and meeting rooms. He got the money from the city and the Ivy Foundation… more than anyone dreamed possible.” Lisa Poultney, one of JGH’s acting executive directors, called Sam’s last success a “triumph.”

“Sam was a good friend, a terrific colleague. We worked together over the last three years – he taught me a lot of about a non-profit organization and what you can achieve when you’re part of a team.”

Before the opening of the new home, Mayor Haskett approached Conti asking if it would be appropriate if she attended. She didn’t want to, “cause a problem.” Wighton said his partner insisted, “you should be there.” Wighton added, “I appreciated her coming to the memorial service and I told her so.”

How fitting that the original John Gordon Home could be viewed from the Dufferin Hall steps where the celebration of Sam’s life was held. The spirit of the service was exemplified by one of Sam’s co-worker’s anecdotes, a JGH resident’s heartfelt goodbye, a brother-in-law’s emotional acknowledgement of Sam’s partner – the voice of novice speakers, excelling at simplicity. Sam communicated the same way: honest, shooting from the hip, and straight from the heart.