Penland School lost a good friend on June 28 when Kat Conley died of a stroke at age 72. As many people reading this will know, Kat ran Penland’s supply store for decades, ordering materials for classes and keeping the place stocked with art supplies, T-shirts, postcards, books, flashlights, and dozens of other items that a Penland student might need. Kat had a big personality and a big heart. She remembered the names of and bits of information about hundreds of Penland students and instructors who she greeted enthusiastically year after year. It was common to hear people say, “I better go visit Kat or I’m going to get in trouble.”
She grew up right near Penland School on Conley Ridge Road. As a child she attended the Appalachian School, an Episcopal school that operated for many years in Horner Hall and brought Penland School founder Lucy Morgan to Conley Ridge Road in the 1920s. As an adult she moved away for a time, returning to her family’s place in the 1980s. That’s when she started working at Penland, which she did until she retired in 2010.
Kat loved the school and was one of its unofficial historians. She told stories about Lucy Morgan and other Penland characters and once wrote narrative histories of many of the older buildings. Although her favorite people got picked on quite a bit, her supply store was a welcoming place, and she was always willing to help people any way she could. After retirement she stayed in touch with many of her friends in the Penland community, and a large group of them gathered at the Beacon Chapel (on Conley Ridge Road, of course) on July 3 to honor her in an informal service led by her son Jimmy.
Crystal Thomas is the manager of the Penland coffee house and has the distinction of being Kat’s granddaughter. Crystal lived with Kat for the last ten years and cared for her as she dealt with a number of health problems. She wrote a few words for us in memory of the woman she always referred to as “my Nana.”
At Penland, for as long as I can remember I’ve been introduced as “Kat Conley’s granddaughter, Crystal.” When I was younger it irritated me, but with time I realized that it was a complement. Kat Conley is remembered for many things, including her laugh and sense of humor, her office decorated with pictures of scantily clad men in cowboy hats, and her voice calling you “kid” no matter how old you were.
Kat Conley worked in the supply store at Penland for almost 30 years. Even before she worked at the school she was a huge part of this community. She worked in factories, in the Penland Post Office, and even had a degree in criminal justice.
When I was a child she never let us call her Grandma. She would threaten to take away our Christmas presents. She said she wasn’t old, and wouldn’t answer to Grandma. We believed her; even as children we knew to take what she said seriously.
Kat Conley was a strong woman. She worked hard and played harder. She loved her family and had the best friends a person could ask for. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss her. Her rough voice laughing at a joke or asking me if I “heard anything good today?” I remember her every morning when I have my coffee. I like to imagine that wherever she is, she’s with her dog and friends that have passed, drinking scotch and trying to pinch someone’s butt.
Kat loved animals, and the family has requested that memorial donations go to Mitchell County Animal Shelter at 2492 US 19-E, Spruce Pine, NC 28777 or through their website mitchellcountyanimalrescue.org.