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July-August 2016

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In Memoriam: Lawrence H. Conklin Jr. (1933–2016)

The mineral community was taken aback yet again, this time by the death of Lawrence “Larry” Conklin on 7 February 2016. My attempt to introduce this talented man to Rocks & Minerals readers presents a bit of a challenge for me. Larry and I had—what to call it—an “on and off” friendship over more than thirty-five years. He was knowledgeable about so many topics and loved to engage in intellectually stimulating conversations (I missed the mark many times). He was also an amazing storyteller. Toward the end, though, I will admit we adored each other, and the “sparring,” which was part of our meetings, always ended with laughter and hugs.

Born in New York City on 28 December 1933 (in the midst of the Great Depression) to parents Lawrence H. Conklin Sr. and Mildred DeCarlo, Larry would spend most of his life in the city. How a visit to a museum can change someone's life! Larry's favorite uncle, Anthony Schumacher, took a young Larry to visit New York's American Museum of Natural History. Uncle Anthony was a sophisticated mineral collector of the day, and even today some of his specimens would hold their own. I can think of a dozen or more collectors/dealers/curators who owe their interest in minerals directly to a visit to that very same museum. Although most young men would find visiting a museum tantamount to drinking castor oil, Larry took himself off to the American to study the minerals whenever he could. He did not ignore other New York City museums—I guess we could call him a “museum junkie.”

While New York City does not seem like a field collector's paradise, in the 1940s it was still possible to collect at various spots on Manhattan Island. He recalled taking a long bus trip to a street on the northern end of Manhattan and sitting on the sidewalk chiseling malacolite (diopside) crystals from the Inwood Marble using a 2-pound sledge hammer. He was ordered off the street by a policeman, who considered his “collecting” to be vandalism because the location was a New York City sidewalk.

Larry attended Brooklyn Technical High School, a specialized high school that was then the largest high school in the United States concentrating on engineering, math, and science. As an exemplary graduate from Brooklyn Technical, Larry was exempt from taking placement tests for City College of New York. Larry showed up on registration day fully intending to major in electrical engineering. This in itself is funny as Larry had difficulty operating a toaster! He was assigned to an upperclassman who was to help him through the registration process. There were blackboards listing the classes offered, and Larry found himself drawn to courses in geology, paleontology, and mineralogy. However, these classes weren't available to engineering students. His advisor attempted to keep Larry on his original path but Larry resisted, and when he presented his collections of minerals, fossils, and gems, his advisor, perhaps slightly frustrated, finally gave up and said, “Well, why in hell don't you become a geologist?” And, he did! Just a few credits short of his degree in geology, Larry left the ranks of students and entered the ranks of mineral dealers in 1955.

He married Halina Aldona Zychlinski (she died in 1997), and they settled in New Canaan, Connecticut. Halina was also a passionate mineral collector. They had two children, Sarah and Charles.

He worked for two years for Ron Romanella at Commercial Mineral Corporation on West 48th Street. Larry commuted by train each day and was paid $100 a month plus a 10 percent selling commission. Romanella spawned a number of well-known dealers, including Herb Obodda, Charlie Key, Frederick “Rick” Smith, and David Wilber.

In 1957 Larry left Commercial Mineral Corporation to form his own company, which he named Commercial Gem Corporation of America—an unusual name because he sold more minerals than gems. His partner in the business was Eric A. Engel, also a former employee of Romanella. Engel had great connections in Brazil, and thus Larry was smack dab in the middle of a heyday of Brazilian specimens. His first ad in Rocks & Minerals in 1957 advertised tourmalines, euclase, brazilianite, and topaz, among other minerals from Brazil. Another ad that caught my eye while doing some research featured a cuprite from Cuba for $8.00. Having been to Cuba in search of the locality, which we discovered is on the property of a nunnery, I am extremely curious as to how he came up with it.

Larry split with Engel in 1959, and the business was then and forever called Lawrence H. Conklin. Larry had offices on various 47th Street locations through the years in the city, and he commuted by train to his home in Connecticut. His last address was at 2 West 46th Street (I was always aware of that address because my good friend Alan Caplan occupied that office in the 1940s and '50s). He was there during the traumatic days following 9/11 but eventually decided to return to one of his interests in colonial furnishings, and he moved into a 1700's house in Wallingford, Connecticut. I love that house—it is filled with original furnishings and is very authentic in its presentation. I almost expected Thomas Jefferson to step out of the library.

Books were another passion of Larry's, and he assembled an incredible collection of antiquarian books on gems and minerals. His own private collection of eye agates is an extraordinary thing to behold. His favorite spot in the house was a room off the kitchen where the mineral cabinets were filled with lots of “eye candy” for collectors. The big round table was where we sat and gossiped (yes, we did) and conducted any business.

Over the years Larry handled the sale of some historic collections; i.e., Peter Zodac (founder of Rocks & Minerals), Louis Zara (well-known jade expert and editor of the short-lived journal Mineral Digest), and Hugh A. Ford (famous mineral dealer). Larry worked a few of the shows in Tucson, Denver, and Detroit, among others, up to the late '70s, but he preferred to be in his office and in later years at home.

He became interested in label collecting, and this led to the founding of a small group, including Richard Bideaux, that pursued historical labels. Larry's collection merged into Bid-eaux's collection, and after Bideaux's death the entire collection was bequeathed to the Mineralogical Record. Larry also had a batch of old letters to George Kunz that he turned into a 1986 book titled Notes and Commentaries on Letters to George F. Kunz.

He partnered with Jay Lininger to begin publishing the journal Matrix in 1988. The two worked together until 1994 when Jay took over the management, and Matrix was published until Jay's death in 2004. Larry was an honorary member of the New York Mineralogical Club for many, many years.

One thing Larry was always proud of was his instrumental role in getting the Newmont Mining Company to donate its famous Tsumeb azurite to the American Museum of Natural History. He sacrificed his considerable appraisal fee for the commitment from Newmont.

He is survived by a brother, Ronald Conklin of Palm Coast, Florida; a son, Charles Conklin of Wallingford; a daughter, Sarah (Ian) Zimmerman of Wilton; and two nieces and five grandchildren.

Larry's final request: “I want my obit to be brief.” Well, here is where Dona and Larry begin the sparring again. Sorry, Larry, I had too much to say about you—we'll debate this subject when I meet up with you one day in that great beyond.

You shared so much of your mineral knowledge with the community … we all benefited. You will be missed, my “lovable Larry” (and I know you are wincing at that monocle, but we'll discuss that too).

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