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"Anything that's kid-oriented is Dennis's idea," says Judy, Conner's vivacious, red-haired wife. "It's something he does all the time. This is going to sound funny, but he does not like children. He doesn't play with them and things like that, but I think he wishes that somebody had taken more of an interest in him as a child and taken him sailing. So he offers those opportunities because that's where he thinks he missed out."
Conner grew up near the San Diego Yacht Club in a family that had neither interest in sailing nor the means to sail. Before Dennis was born, his father had a commercial fishing boat. "Albacore," Conner said a few weeks ago. "A fairly small, 60-foot albacore boat. I think my grandfather owned part of it. It wasn't exactly meager, but it wasn't a great living and I think, ultimately, my mother laid down the law and said, 'When are you going to get a regular job?' So he went to work for Convair during the war. He eventually worked up into an engineering-type position in estimating [production costs], even though he didn't have the background. Basically he worked there till he died. Actually today is his birthday. He died about three or four years ago. Maybe five years ago. Time flies."
Conner never wanted for food or clothes or a decent house or schooling, but he was alone a lot and he desperately needed to be good at something. Sailing became his vehicle. He learned it by hanging around the yacht club making a nuisance of himself.
"He was a pest, a pain in the ass," says Burnham, who was 15 years older, handsome, wealthy and a very good sailor. "He was always searching out older people for advice, he was always underfoot, wanting information. Why do you do this, and why do you do that? On one of the San Diego-Acapulco races there were five of us aboard. Dennis was by far the youngest, and he was one of those kids who never wanted to cleat the sheet down. And this was overnight racing. He always wanted to change something. An inch here, half an inch there. For a long time we called him Sak, for Smart-Ass Kid."
Conner's heroes were San Diego's hotshot sailors, a world-class bunch that included Star champions Burnham and Lowell North. His mentor and father substitute, however, was Ashley Bown, whom Burnham describes as "a successful ocean racer...an old-time, seat-of-the-pants sailor who was always coming up with new ideas...a San Diego institution."
"Dennis was always going to Ash," says Burnham. "Every Monday after school he would end up at Ash's house waiting for him to come home from work so he could ask him about the weekend sailing, either Ash's races or Dennis's."
Although Conner became a junior member at the San Diego Yacht Club, he never had his own boat as most juniors did. An $800 Starlet was beyond his means. In fact Conner was 27 before he bought a half interest in his first boat, a 33-footer, for $1,700.
"I've always known how much I have in my checking account, if you know what I mean," Conner says. "For the first 35 years of my life I could have told you how much, within a couple of dollars, I had in my pocket. But I couldn't tell you now if I had $20 or $50."
Suddenly Conner stands up behind the desk of his cramped office in the Stars & Stripes Fremantle headquarters and begins emptying his pockets. Several bills and an American Express Gold Card tumble onto the desk. He counts the money, puts it back in his pocket and sits down again. "It seems to be about $200," he says. "Things have changed. For the better."