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How do you handle a cow that’s lost and needs attention?
How do you float a fly from a fishing line to hit just the spot you want?
How do you attempt to help raise someone else’s children?
How do you calm an 8-year-old into whose tooth you’re about to drill?
How do you respond to the community that is the foundation of your career?
If you are John Conniff, the same two words answer all of these questions:
Just before Thanksgiving, an appropriate time for a grateful man, Conniff retired from his career as a pediatric dentist, nearly 45 years after he first set up shop in Las Cruces.
“Caring and loving,” is how Laurie Gormley, who began working with him in 1991, describes Conniff. “Kids know if you care. They’re like animals. You can’t fool them.”
A couple of years after he took on Gormley at his practice, Conniff began another important partnership, marrying Laura, with whom he recently celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary.
“He married me only because my children didn’t have any cavities,” Laura joked recently.
One of those children, Sarah, grew up to become a dentist herself, working now in Austin. The other, Ryan, is a doctoral candidate in Atlanta.
Though he has no biological children, “they are his kids,” Laura said of the way Conniff has treated Ryan and Sarah.
When John and Laura found themselves single in the early 1990s, it seemed like all of their mutual friend wanted to set the two up. It didn’t take too much convincing for either one, especially when they discovered a common fondness for horses and cattle.
Laura grew up in a livestock family in Illinois, and that business brought her family to Las Cruces. John grew up in Albuquerque, but always had an interest in ranching. While some couples like beach vacations or cruises, John and Laura were more content taking trips to stock shows.
The first big gift Laura got for John was not a nice watch or a diamond ring, but cattle embryos.
“He told me he’d had horses, but never had cattle. And these were Queenie’s embryos!” said Laura, referencing the lineage of award-winning livestock.
Conniff named two of the resulting calves Ryan and Sarah.
HE’S GOT YOUR BACK
When Conniff arrived in Las Cruces to begin his practice, there were two things that set him apart.
“He was the only pediatric dentist in the southern half of the state,” Gormley said.
“And he took kids on Medicaid from Day One,” Laura said. “Not everyone does that.”
Gormley had only been practicing a year when she began working with Conniff, and was immediately grateful for her decision and his leadership.
“He was very much a mentor,” Gormley said. “Not only in dentistry, but in how to handle staff and how to run a business.”
After two years working together, Gormley became a business partner to Conniff.
“The failure rate for partnerships in dentistry and medicine is very high,” Gormley said. “I count myself fortunate. Our magic formula was we were very busy watching each other’s backs.”
Conniff has also had the back of his marriage partner.
“We had only been married three years when I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Laura said. They discussed the options, and she was concerned what he might think. She recalls his response being all about her.
“He said, ‘You need to decide what you’re comfortable with. I don’t want you to worry about anything. Whatever you decide is fine with me. All I want out of this is YOU.’
“He supported me through the surgery and ever since,” Laura said.
With John at her side, Laura came through well, and in 2007, joined Pat Sisbarro, Mary Henson and Magellia Boston as the guiding forces of the “NMSU Aggies are Tough Enough to Wear Pink” campaign, which raised millions of dollars for breast cancer research, and gained national accolades. Laura and others worked tirelessly on the project.
Laura also served on the NMSU Board of Regents, another responsibility which took a great deal of her time and energy.
“He’s always been there for me,” Laura said. “He’s just the best.”
Conniff has also been there for the community, including seeing children at local elementary schools on an annual basis.
“He has a passion for the wellbeing of the community,” Gormley said. “He’s very kind and fair.
In addition to his dental work, Conniff has also served with the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and is a board member. He’s also been involved behind the scenes with many efforts.
“He’s done a lot in the community and for the community,” Laura said. “He works hard, he doesn’t talk much. When he’s got a job to do, he gets it done.”