Connie Connor has always kept busy, very busy. She has been a newspaper reporter, a gift shop owner, a bookkeeper, and a yacht salesperson just to start the list. She has taught art classes, organized a youth horseback riding program, and trained a therapy dog to aid children with reading. She was one of the people who organized the event now called Dogs on the Dock at the Connecticut River Museum. (Originally, it was known as Mutt Strut.)
Connie has won many baking contests with her apple pumpkin pie, a recipe she once sent to TV cooking show host Paula Dean right before Thanksgiving. The very next day, a picture of the pie appeared on Dean’s blog.
“Her staff must have stayed up all night to make it,” Connie says.
Along with Sue Nilsen, she is co-manager of the new thrift shop at the First Congregation Church in Essex; she has been a member of the Essex Board of Trade for some 30 years, and she is a board member of Sister Cities Essex Haiti (SCEH), the organization sponsoring a concert by teenage prodigy Ethan Bortnick on Thursday, April 6 at Valley Regional High School. In fact, she spent part of a recent day publicizing the concert on social media.
In 2014, Connie was volunteer of the year for the Essex Auxiliary of the Child & Family Agency, working on fundraisers like the house tour and the annual tag sale. She also did public relations for the group and the annual directory for a number of years.
She has also become the head, known as regent, of the Nathan Hale Memorial Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) headquartered in East Haddam. She had planned to serve as vice-regent for a three-year term, but when the regent resigned, she took over the leadership earlier than scheduled. According to the DAR’s website, any woman 18 years or older, whatever her race, religion, or ethnic background, who can prove her descent from “a patriot of the American Revolution” can join the group. Connie says her connection stems from an ancestor in Salem, Massachusetts. Her DAR group is now knitting gloves and hats for veterans at a facility in Rocky Hill.
The thrift shop at the First Congregational Church started after the decision that the rummage sale last fall would be the final one the organization would sponsor.
“Everybody was my age, and it is a lot of work. You need an army to do the rummage sale,” Connie says, explaining that carrying all the merchandise in and out became increasingly burdensome.
Then parishioner Susan Christopher (no relation to this reporter) came up with another idea: Instead of the rummage sale, why not start a thrift shop? That’s just what happened. Two rooms, once used for Sunday school, were converted into the new thrift shop, Treasures on the Hill. The shop is open the first and third Saturday of each month from 9 a.m. to noon, and Sundays after church services, from 11 a.m. to noon.
Connie was able to get shelves and racks to display items from the Christmas Barn in Essex, which closed after some 20 years in business. The thrift shop now offers, among other things, a selection of clothes, crystal, china, and a book nook, including a selection of cookbooks.
“Last week when we opened at 9 o’clock, there were already people waiting,” Connie says.
The money the shop earns is used for the church programs.
The thrift shop takes advantage of the 17 years of merchandising experience Connie got running her own gift shop in Essex. At first the store was called Country Pleasures. When Connie moved the shop closer to the Essex waterfront, she renamed it Country Pleasures and Nautical Treasures. She sold the store in 2000; the new owner moved to a new location and closed the shop a few years later.
Connie is particularly proud of the work she did with her Australian shepherd, Doc—short for What’s Up, Doc—in the reading program she herself developed. Connie had decided to train Doc as a therapy dog, and he passed the very difficult test to qualify, the only one of more than a dozen dogs tested with him to meet the requirements.
Connie went to a conference held by the organization that oversaw the training and testing and heard a talk about therapy dogs helping children who were hesitant readers.
She decided that was the area she wanted to pursue, but learned that there was as yet no training manual ready for a reading program. Connie decided she would write her own. The result was a program she herself developed, Paws and Read. It became the prototype for the Delta Classroom Canines program.
She worked with children who were having reading problems, or were too shy or too intimidated to read aloud, both at the Killingworth Library and at the bookstore that used to occupy a building at the head of Main Street in Essex. Children could sign up at the bookstore or the library.
The children read to Doc, sitting next to the dog and feeling the reassurance of his presence.
“It was fostering a love of reading through the child-animal bond,” Connie says.
The program lasted six weeks; children got a certificate of accomplishment at the end. Many came back for repeat sessions, choosing to forgo activities like sports for the opportunity.
Connie ran the program for about seven years, until Doc passed away.
“After I lost him, I just couldn’t get another dog,” she says.
Connie and her husband Don, both of whom grew up in Bradford, Pennsylvania, are lifelong boaters. That was what first brought them to this area. They lived in Wallingford, but their boat was moored first in Deep River and now in Essex.
Connie and Don, who have been married more than 60 years, used to spend all summer living and cruising on the boat, a 45-foot Matthews Motor Yacht they bought in 1968—”Really 90 feet if you measure both sides,” Don quips.
Now, they often just go down to the boat, named Togetherness, in the summer, and relax in the slip. But there is a reason for that, Connie points out, beyond their love of being on the water.
“The boat is air-conditioned and our house isn’t,” she says.