Dwight Conquergood R.I.P.

DWIGHT CONQUERGOOD, 55
Professor of the Year in 1993
Read Dwight's Power of Symbols

 

By Tom Rybarczyk
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Published November 19, 2004

Northwestern University Professor Dwight Conquergood took his desire to understand the disenfranchised to a Thai refugee camp, a dangerous Chicago neighborhood and vigils outside scheduled Death Row executions.

And even if he was thrust into danger, as he was in the 1980s when he was beaten while living in an Albany Park apartment complex, he kept coming back.

"He was scared," said his friend and fellow NU Professor Micaela di Leonardo of his stay in the apartment complex known as Big Red. "It was dangerous and it was unpleasant ... But he found a community."

Professor Conquergood, 55, of Chicago, died Saturday, Nov. 13, in Rush North Shore Hospice in Skokie after a prolonged battle with colon cancer.

Friends and colleagues said his ability to communicate and understand were his greatest gifts. Whether it was giving a lecture to graduate students or speaking to the Latin Kings street gang's inner circle, Professor Conquergood worked to see how the disadvantaged view the world and then show that to the privileged decision-makers.

"What I thought was remarkable about him was he was one of those rare people who could move between these different worlds," said Michelle Citron, an NU professor and friend. "There's not many academics who take their work out to communities and people."

Born in Canada, he moved with his family to Terre Haute, Ind. at age 3.

As a teen, he began to show his intellectual ability, earning the highest marks in high school and college, said his brother Larey.

"He was such an overachiever," his brother said.

After graduating from Indiana State University in the early 1970s, Professor Conquergood received his doctorate from Northwestern.

In 1978, he was back at Northwestern as a professor. He taught classes on anthropology and folklore. He also lectured on performance studies, a field that combines anthropology and such performance disciplines as theater and dance.

His intense work ethic left little time for a wife and family, his brother said.

Instead, Professor Conquergood would develop a number of surrogate families, first among the Hmong in Southeastern Asia and then among Albany Park residents, including members of the Latin Kings, di Leonardo said.

His knowledge of performance studies helped him teach Hmong refugees in Thailand the importance of public health and sanitation, di Leonardo said. Professor Conquergood was able to use their mythology in a theater setting to get his points across, she said.

Professor Conquergood used film and writing to help others communicate, di Leonardo said. His documentary on the struggles in Big Red was filmed with the help of Latin Kings members and challenged the notion that gangs were racially segregated, di Leonardo said.

Professor Conquergood testified in court on his findings about the Hmong as well as his experience with North Side gangs as an expert witness, according to Tribune articles.

In his later years, he would take on the death penalty, publishing an essay titled "Lethal Theatre: Performance, Punishment and the Death Penalty," that garnered him national recognition, di Leonardo said.

He won the Illinois Professor of the Year award in 1993 and several NU teaching awards.

Other survivors include his mother, Dorothea ; two sisters, Carey Konazeski and Cheryl Wall; and another brother, Kevin.

A memorial service is being planned for January at Northwestern University.