Chris Del Conte simply calls his father’s death “an accident” when anyone else would call it what it is: Murder.
“I tend to look at it that way because ... how do you say it any other way?” he said. “I can’t say it. You just justify it in your mind, ‘He had an accident.’”
The ex-TCU athletic director has become one of the most visible people in college sports, thanks largely to a personality that is akin to his late father, Robert Del Conte, the man who could not say no, whose calling was to take care of people, and to never quit on any person.
And since he was killed on Oct. 25, 2000, Chris Del Conte has become Robert Del Conte not only in his job or to his children, but for the sprawling Del Conte family that he and his wife raised on a farm in Taos, N.M.
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Chris Del Conte loves to talk about his dad, but not how he died. Almost 20 years later this is an impossible subject. When Del Conte left TCU one year ago for Austin, he admitted he never fully dealt with the trauma and the hurt that came with his dad’s death.
He tears up and his voice cracks when talking about The Silver Fox, but on this New Year’s Day now is the perfect time to share the message that the son carries on behalf off his dad.
Behind Del Conte’s desk are the words he read at his father’s memorial service, and the same message that sat behind his dad’s desk, too:
“People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered: forgive them anyway.
“If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives: be kind anyway.
“If you are successful, you’ll win some false friends and some true enemies: succeed anyway.
“If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you: be honest and frank anyway.
“What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight: build anyway.
“If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous: be happy anyway.
“The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow: do good anyway.
“Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough: give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
“You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God: it was never between you and them anyway.”
Robert Del Conte and his wife moved from Mexico to start a group home for foster children on a ranch in New Mexico in the ‘60s. They had children of their own, but on the ranch everyone was family. The number was well over 150.
On a fall Saturday in 2000, Chris and his father were sitting in the bleachers at a Stanford football game when the son gave his dad the good news: He had accepted a position at the University of Arizona, and his wife, Robin, was pregnant.
“My work here is done,” his dad proudly told him.
All of the children were out of the house and doing well on their own. Life was not over, but the “mission” had a conclusion of sorts.
After leaving Palo Alto, Robert was driving south and stopped along the road in Morro Bay to help a motorist work on a disabled car. The motorist knocked Robert Del Conte out, cut his throat, threw him into a gully and stole his wallet.
That is the accident.
Robert Del Conte was murdered for $60. He was 61.
How does one talk about this?
“I cherish that last conversation and the day was such a good time,” Chris Del Conte said. “It was this time of euphoria and then life just takes this different path.”
A LIFETIME OF HALLOWNESS
Chris Del Conte and the family did not learn of Robert’s death for several days.
The killer used his father’s credit card and was picked up by police. The case, however, was not easy and done.
The investigation and trial took more than a year, and prosecutors were unable to decisively pin the murder on Robert Watson.
“I just walled it all off from everyone; I worked constantly and went back and forth from Arizona to the trial and for everything. I thought that was the best way to handle it,” Chris Del Conte said. “I always thought I didn’t do enough to get him convicted the first time.”
The Del Conte family initially feared the alleged murderer was going to get off until DNA evidenced linked him to another crime, a cold case more than a decade old. Watson eventually confessed to raping and killing a woman who had been his foster parent.
On June 28, 2001, Watson was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He is 51, and in prison in San Diego.
“You need time to mourn and I never did,” Del Conte said. “The pain is the same if you lose someone whether it’s cancer, but there is a chance to say goodbye. This was so violent and the opportunity to say goodbye is not there. There will be a lifetime of hollowness. I used to call him all the time for advice. I find myself weepy at weird times. Big events. Maybe it’s my age. Just ... missing my dad.”
UNPACKING THE PEDASTAL
Chris Del Conte never knew his father as a peer; he knew his dad only atop a pedestal, on which he remains to this day.
Talking in his office at Texas, his voice cracks about The Silver Fox. Some of it’s mourning. Some of it’s just guilt.
“Catholic guilt runs deep,” Del Conte said.
He was mad at God. How could He do this?
“Constantly,” he said. “I asked him 1,000 times, ‘How can someone who served you and went through his whole life, how can he die like this?’ I have yet to have the answer, but I know I’ll honor my dad living the way he did.”
He believes what his dad preaches, which is he came in this world with nothing, and he will leave with nothing. He will give it all away.
Del Conte is horrendous at saying no. He answers every call. Everyone gets a few minutes and feels special.
Del Conte is not a believer that “everything happens for a reason,” especially after this “accident.”
“Maybe perspective helps, but I believe you make your own fortune or misfortune,” he said.
And after all this time, and so much pain, he can unpack all of this.
“How do you reach forgiveness for the person who did that? But, more importantly, how do you let that go? That was a long time,” he said. “Do I forgive an individual and believe in God? You question that. For a long time I did. You’re talking about a guy who gave his life for serving others to be killed in that matter.
“But time heals wounds.”
“No ... but it gives you perspective,” he said. “That I have to live in the now. The idea of coming to Texas, it was the highest of the high. But that would not have impressed (his father). It’s the idea of, ‘Were you honest? Were you humble? Did you serve?”
How Robert Del Conte died was no accident, and neither was how he lived.