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Sean Kirst: At Bulldog Dash, recalling Conor Long, Hamburg's heart and soul

Conor Long did not even need a piece of paper. Emma Ballowe saw him coming on his bicycle five years ago during a Tuesday night concert in Boston Town Park, in southern Erie County. They had known each other since they went to the same preschool, and they eventually arrived at a childhood understanding that Conor was about to formalize.

He stopped his bike and asked Emma for a phone number. She laughs about it, because he did not say “your phone number” but “a phone number,” as if she might have many. When she provided it, he did not write it down. Conor repeated the seven digits out loud, then never forgot them.

As of that moment, they were dating. Within a few years, at Hamburg High School, they were so close they were sure they would someday be married. Emma is only 18, not even a year past graduation, but she quickly learned one thing about the only true boyfriend she ever had.

“If I called him,” she said, “he always answered the phone.”

Even today, she feels as if that ought to happen. Conor died in July, at 20, when he fell while hiking near a waterfall at Zoar Valley.

“He was remarkable for his age, just wise beyond his years,” said Bill Malican, a longtime high school running coach at Hamburg. “In the years I knew him, I never recall him saying an unkind thing about anyone, not even when meant in humor.”

Conor Long with his father Brian, left, and mother Marybeth, to Conor's right; Emma Ballowe, Conor's longtime girlfriend, is between his parents. (Family image)

Last week, Emma sat at SPoT Coffee in Hamburg with Meghan Quinn, Conor’s older sister by 14 years, and Julie Cox, a neighbor the family trusts and loves. Meghan said her brother was a later-in-life surprise for her parents, Marybeth and Brian. She said they see their years with Conor as an unexpected treasure.

“He had an awesome life," Meghan said. "I don’t know anyone who did more in that much time.”

The only way to move on, she said, is by honoring the hashtag used by many who knew him: #BeLikeConor. Meghan is sure Conor would have built a career of meaning — maybe as an educator, maybe in public service. She said his friends and family around Hamburg intend to do their best to strengthen the community, based on his memory.

For that reason, they invite you to Saturday’s Bulldog Dash.

That 3.1 mile run and walk begins at 9:30 a.m. at Hamburg High School. Registration for adults, through Friday, is $25. Proceeds benefit Unyts of Buffalo, a local eye, organ, tissue and community blood bank, as well as the high school's health science academy.

Zoar Valley hiker killed in fall identified as Town of Boston man

The tribute is as fitting as it gets. Conor, at 15, founded the Bulldog Dash. As a sophomore, he joined Hamburg's health science academy, a new program for students interested in health-related careers. Sally Couzens, the faculty adviser, said Conor saw that event as an ideal fundraiser.

He would run the race in costume as Hamburg’s bulldog mascot, Couzens said, then would double back to encourage other runners. Conor was hardly a typical mascot. In high school, he ran cross-country and was a record-breaking sprinter, and he did not dawdle while inside the bulldog suit.

"I remember my husband was very upset when the mascot passed him,” Couzens said.

Conor and Emma at senior prom. (Family photo)

At Hamburg, Conor seemed to do a little of everything. He was president of the student council and a student representative on the School Board. He had a passion for public speaking, and his emotional commencement address brought his classmates to their feet. Conor also competed, over four years, in at least five sports.

He loved those four years of high school, and Malican said Conor's teachers and coaches had to convince him he would love college just as much. He stayed close to home, helping out at Hamburg as a running coach and as a mentor.

Conor earned his associate's degree in a single year at Erie Community College. His plan was joining Emma this autumn at St. Bonaventure University.

All those accomplishments did not define him, Emma said. In the words of Hamburg superintendent Michael Cornell, Conor's most striking quality "was that he was so kind."He was the unusual person, Cornell said, whose kindness was so distinct that people were drawn to him.

Emma and Meghan said Conor really saw people, including strangers, when he was in their presence. If a teenager was alone in the cafeteria, Conor would make a point of sitting with that student. He also embraced the chess club, joining with the quiet and sometimes solitary regulars who revere the game to turn it into a popular cafeteria outlet during lunch.

Brian Long, Conor’s elder brother by eight years, vividly recalled the years when they shared a room. Even as a child, Brian said, Conor had the gift of listening with selfless intensity.

At 13, Brian learned he had leukemia. Meghan, their older sister, is now a nurse at Mercy Hospital. She believes that watching his brother go through such a struggle gave Conor an amplified depth of understanding, part of the reason so many adults spoke of him as "an old soul."

When Conor died, the lines at his wake were a quarter-mile long. More than 2,000 people showed up for a vigil at Hamburg High, where students had the chance to fill a family scrapbook with written messages. Teen after teen described the way Conor always paused to say hello, the way he made people feel as if they mattered.

“Conor,” wrote one student, “was the best kid ever.”

Emma Ballowe shares memories of Conor Long at SPoT Coffee in Hamburg. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Emma Ballowe learned that truth as a little girl. “We always knew we liked each other,” she said of Conor. Once they started dating, Connor would sometimes text her images of elderly couples sitting side-by-side, images that meant, "Someday this will be us."

Emma can tell you how much Conor loved a steak dinner, or how his parents named him after a main character in the book "Trinity." He was a big fan of "The Lord of the Rings," Emma said, and his favorite music was often video game themes or selections from the opera. She said he could sometimes be “the biggest goofball,” a guy who loved to talk in weird voices and laugh at his own jokes.

Yet he would also "drop everything" when she needed him. Conor dipped into his college savings so he could drive Emma to her senior prom in a Rolls Royce. Those who loved him say his biggest challenge with saving money was that he could always find a reason to spend it on someone else.

Emma, who had planned on starting college this semester, decided in her grief to take a few months off. She intends to return to school in January, possibly at a campus close enough to home that she can help build a foundation named in Conor's honor.

He had a confidence, a kind of stubborn determination, that was mainly charming, sometimes maddening — yet always made things better. "He wanted to make a difference," Emma said, and she understands better than anyone exactly how Conor did it.

Wherever he put his heart, as the race proves Saturday, he meant for it to last.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

Signs for the Bulldog Dash, with Conor Long's photo in a Bulldog suit, have popped up throughout Hamburg. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

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