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Center Snapshot: Susan Conry
Susan Conry Image above: Susan Conry is trying to learn to play tennis to provide a worthy opponent for her daughter, Nicolle. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

It begins with family, with a daughter who is learning to play tennis and to drive, and a husband who depends on wife Susan Conry to keep his business going.

And it ends with family, with an annual migration to Martinsville, Va., to make apple butter, using some extra technology, and to catch up with distant relatives.

In between, Conry works at NASA Langley, as she has since 1986, either for the agency or for the Federal Aviation Administration. She also works as bookkeeper, marketer and office manager -- in a home office -- for husband Tony's remodeling business. And works as a hitting partner for daughter Nicolle, a rising sophomore at Gloucester High School.

"Seems boring, doesn't it?" Conry asked.

Only if you have something against spare time.

She got an early start at NASA Langley, at 17, as a co-op secretary going to school at Thomas Nelson Community College. By her second year, she had moved from operations to the research side of the center. Chief among her duties: typing research papers, a lost administrative art in the computer era of researchers doing their own reports.

"I didn't understand any of it," she said of the research. "Back in that day, you sent everything to the technical editing branch. ... There were guidelines for everything. Now you don't even see a typewriter in an office anymore."

She was part of a clerical support team that changed everything for administrative officers and secretaries, composing templates to replace notebooks of forms, and deriving ways to do the job more efficiently.

At FAA, she worked in managing inter-agency agreements until the regional office was closed. She declined a move to Washington.

"I didn't see how that was going to work with my family here," she said.

Here is five acres in Gloucester, partly wooded, though less so since a tornado ripped through the property last year. The land suits Tony, who likes the outdoors -- particularly hunting in it. Susan tried hunting once.

"It just isn't my thing to sit in the cold and be still," she said, laughing now at time spent in a deer stand.

Now he hunts -- gun, muzzle loader, archery -- and cleans what he kills, something Susan drew the line at doing. "I tell him if he kills it, he cleans it," she said. "I'll cook it."

She prefers spending time swimming in their pool, camping and learning to play tennis well enough to challenge her daughter.

Nicolle is about to challenge her mom.

"She gets her learner's permit in two weeks," Conry said. "I'm very nervous about that."

It's the usual mixed reaction of a mother: happy for the daughter, afraid for the daughter.

Their relationship is a close one. "I'm very lucky," Conry said.

A high point of every year is the trek to Martinsville during the first weekend in October. There, her mother's extended family meet to reminisce and to make gallons of apple butter, a family tradition. Each member has a job, ranging from peeling and cutting up apples, to taking care of the fire, to making sure the spices are just right.

"We all take turns doing something," Conry said. "Some of them are engineers."

The process is decades old, but the mechanics have changed with a cousin who added a propane burner to replace stoking a wood fire under a copper kettle; hooked up a washing machine motor to move the churning paddles around; and even fitted a power drill to an apple core device to eliminate hand cranking.

A committee of relatives scrutinizes the apple butter.

"It's exciting just to be able to visit with your family," Conry said. "The day to day things just seem to get in the way, and we're all so spread out."

After all, it begins with family.

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman