By Wade Coggeshall
INDIANAPOLIS — Clay Conner Jr.'s legacy doesn't just endure in a new book about his experience in World War II, but in the insurance company he founded and that continues to be run by his four sons.
Resolve, written by Bob Welch, tells the story of Conner's perseverance as an escapee from the Bataan Death March, when the Japanese took control of the Philippines in April 1942. Rather than face daunting circumstances in a prison camp, Conner, along with 300-some other U.S. soldiers, fled into the jungle.
Problem was, Conner was basically a cheerleader from Duke University who had never even been camping before he became a U.S. Army Air Corps communications officer. He and other soldiers spent the next 34 months hiding from Japanese forces, who ultimately put a price on their heads, while seeking support from natives who put their own lives at risk. Add to that the challenge of constantly having to move and dealing with rebel forces who had their own shifting allegiances.
"It was very much a balancing act," said Jack, Conner's second-oldest son.
Conner survived, though, and for a long time was a nationally-known speaker on his unlikely survival. He counted Bob Hope and Roy Rogers among his friends for a time. The NBC documentary show "This is Your Life" did a profile on Conner's military service.
"He was a hot commodity for a while - a war hero they wanted to put in parades," Jack said. "It was not uncommon in our lives for him to be gone speaking one or two nights a week."
Conner was born in Indianapolis but grew up in New Jersey. His parents worked for a company that printed payment plan books for banks. Their job was to sell these up and down the eastern seaboard.
After returning from the war, Conner looked up the woman who would become his wife (she was a family friend), got married, and moved to New York. He started working for a company that had a program for disabled veterans.
"It was kind of like a job with no accountability," Jack said. "He was head of their service department but basically could do whatever he wanted. It was the mentality that he had already done enough for his country."
After they had their first son, Clay III, Conner didn't want to raise a family in New York, so they returned to Indianapolis. He took an aptitude test, which revealed he'd be good at sales. He started selling insurance for Aetna and eventually opened the Conner Agency.
"He started building relationships the same way he did that kept him alive during the war," Jack said. "Some of those are still part of our accounts today."
Soon after Jack graduated from Indiana University in 1971, Conner offered to sell the agency to all four of his sons. It would be a 10-year turnover, since youngest brother Tom was still in high school at the time. Plus, "Dad always said the biggest challenge would be the four of us figuring out how to stay together," said Jack, who noted it was not a given that the agency would stay in the family.
Sadly, Conner died just a month after the ownership transfer was complete. Jack keeps a framed photo of him in his office. It shows Conner posing next to a headstone of an ancestor he had found through genealogy. It's only remarkable in that it's the last photo ever taken of him. Conner had a heart attack an hour later.
"He was very loving but he was also military, and we were his four soldiers," Jack said. "There wasn't a lot of negotiation, but you knew that what he wanted was the best for you. He communicated that."
As for the insurance business, "Dad's goal was to build the agency by offering what customers need. It's not about selling insurance - it's about satisfying needs."
Three of the four brothers - Jim being the other - still own the Conner Agency. Clay III left after his father died, but returned last year.
The next transition is already in place for the company, which offers property and casualty insurance for commercial clients, as well as employee benefits. Jack's son runs the information technology department. Jim has a son, daughter, and son-in-law who all work there. Tom's daughter is employed there, and his son will join the firm upon graduating college in May.
"The next generation is ready to roll," Jack said. "When we meet with them, we call them Ô3G' for third generation. I think Dad would be happy."
Visit the website ResolveBook.com for more information on Welch's book.
The Conner Agency is at 8445 Keystone Crossing Boulevard. For more information, visit the website at ConnerAgency.com.