John Edwin Conner, teacher, college dean, and author, the son of Harriet (Williamson) and William Trustan Conner, was born on November 21, 1883, at Field Creek, Llano County, Texas. Shortly after he was born, the family moved to Pontotoc, Mason County, where they lived until 1904 (except for the years 1888 to 1890, spent in Santo, Palo Pinto County). His father ran a general store, farmed, and occasionally built houses; his mother was postmistress at Pontotoc. In 1891 or 1892 a school district was formed at Pontotoc with William Conner as the first school board president. From 1890 onward, John Conner worked on the family farm and also did a variety of other work, learning at one point about setting type. During his youth his recreation included attending Mollie Bailey shows and playing baseball. With the shortened and sometimes missing school years at that time it was not until May 1904 that he graduated from high school, first in a class of two. In 1904 it was required that Pontotoc High School graduates pass the state examination for the first-grade teacher's certificate. During Conner's last two or three years at Pontotoc, the superintendent was E. C. Broyles, great-grandfather of the William Broyles who later edited Texas Monthly. Broyles had a profound influence on Conner, exciting his interest in history and teaching him how to write clearly and persuasively. Above all, he taught him how to edit his own work. Broyles, in addition to his other work, published more than one small-town newspaper, and in the early summer of 1904 he hired Conner to run for him the newspaper Broyles owned in Eden.
Before the next year, Conner took a job in a one-room school at Katemcy at sixty-five dollars a month for five months. During the next two school years, he taught at two other one-room schools. In 1907 he went to Eden as principal and teacher of a three-room school, and in 1908 he became high school principal and teacher in Eldorado. There were eleven grades in Eldorado, and for the first time he found it feasible to teach only some, rather than all of the subjects the students were supposed to master. There were normal schools at several places by 1904, and Conner attended two of them (at Denton and at San Marcos). In 1911 he graduated from Southwest Texas Normal. On August 27, 1911, he married Fannie Johnson; they had three children. During the 1911–12 school year he was principal of the high school at Ozona, and in the fall of 1913 he became superintendent of schools at Sanderson, where he remained until 1918. The years at Sanderson were the years of Francisco (Pancho) Villa, and an unofficial militia was formed to defend the town, of which Conner was a leader.
In the fall of 1919 Conner left Sanderson to become superintendent at Marfa, a somewhat larger and more prosperous place than Sanderson. Beginning in 1917 he taught in several summer sessions and teacher's institutes at Sul Ross Normal in Alpine. He became acquainted with Robert Bartow Cousins, who had been appointed president of the new college to be built in Kingsville, and in 1923 Cousins offered Conner a job there. To qualify for the position Conner entered the University of Texas in June 1923. In May 1924 he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, and in August of that year was granted an A.B. degree in American history; his M.A. was granted in 1927. During the 1924–25 school year he was superintendent at Odessa. Conner and his family arrived in Kingsville on June 1, 1925, and South Texas State Teachers College (later Texas A&M University at Kingsville) opened on June 7 of that year. This school had been planned by the legislature in 1911 as a source of teachers for the local Mexican-American population. Cousins and his staff faced a formidable task in starting the new college. There were few potential students. More than half the population of the area spoke little English, and few of the English speakers had finished high school. What students there were had trouble getting to Kingsville, as there were almost no paved roads and the only public transportation was by rail, which had inconvenient schedules for local routes. The new college also at first had few facilities and a library with fewer than 1,000 volumes. Conner became engaged at once in recruiting students and was soon acting as publicity man and lobbyist-producing press releases, contacting school superintendents, and approaching legislators. He made himself available as a speaker all over the area and talked to graduating classes, to Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions clubs, to Boy Scout groups, and to parent-teacher associations. Robert J. Kleberg and J. K. Northway of the King Ranch had pushed strongly for the college to be located in Kingsville and were disappointed that graduates of the college were not going to be useful to the ranch's plans. Northway in particular began to push for a change in the purpose of the college so he could get more technical help from its graduates. In 1929 the school became the Texas College of Arts and Industries, and Conner became dean of the college. In the next ten years he taught classes and promoted the college, helped develop a museum, and struggled to get approval for the college from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. As early as the summer of 1925 people were bringing to Conner's office collectible materials, primarily, at first, World War I weapons. Very soon the materials became more diversified, and from 1928 onward Conner sought out materials, specimens, and contributions for the museum. After World War II he no longer had administrative responsibilities, and could spend more of his time on the collection. During the 1940s his vision gradually began to fail. While he was on leave from the campus during 1942–45, he became the historian at the quartermaster depot at Fort Sam Houston. He completed his first published book, The Centennial Record of the San Antonio Service Forces Depot (1845–1945) in 1945. He retired from the university in May 1954, whereupon he served as the director of the school's museum until 1964. He also began to write a history of Texas, intended for public school children. Your Texas and Mine appeared in 1961 and was followed by The Flags of Texas in 1964. Though he was engaged in writing, his museum collecting continued until 1967, when he left the area for a time. In 1976 the collection was moved to its current location and dedicated as the John E. Conner Museum. Conner continued to write until the end of his life, though his eyesight prevented him from rewriting or editing his writings. His daughter-in-law pulled some of his reminiscences together into a book, A Great While Ago, published in 1983. On his 100th birthday Conner was honored with a encomium from the governor, which was printed in the Congressional Record. In September 1988 he was the oldest living graduate of the University of Texas and the oldest living holder of a Phi Beta Kappa key. He died on September 1, 1989, in Corpus Christi at the age of 105 and was buried at Bellevue Cemetery.