Pat Conroy tribute a fitting start to AJC Decatur Book Festival

The 11th annual AJC Decatur Book Festival kicked off Friday night at Emory University's Schwartz Center with a moving tribute to author Pat Conroy, who died in March.

Five notable writers shared stories about the author and read passages from his work. Their testimonials touched on common themes that emphasized Conroy's expansive, larger-than-life persona, his warmth and generosity, and his love of a good story.

His daughter, Melissa Conroy, told a darkly humorous story about driving over a bridge with her sister Megan after Conroy’s funeral when they accidentally struck a large, loping osprey struggling to hold onto a fish it had just caught.

“That had to be symbolic,” she said Megan exclaimed at the time.

“I think that might have been Dad,” Melissa responded.

For her reading, Conroy’s widow, novelist Cassandra King Conroy, selected a single, poignant line from her husband’s memoir “My Losing Season”: “There is no teacher more discriminating or transforming than loss.”

Novelist Ron Rash read the opening of “The Prince of Tides” and ended by saying, “I just can’t believe his voice doesn’t exist in the world.”

Journalist Bronwen Dickey recalled the first time she met Conroy at the funeral for her father, the writer James Dickey, who was Conroy's mentor. She credited Conroy for helping her land her first magazine writing assignment.

“He opened doors for me that were too big for me to budge, and he did it over and over again, and he did it for my whole family,” she said before reading from “The Water is Wide,” based on Conroy’s experience teaching at Daufuskie Island, S.C.

The evening ended with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg, who likened Conroy to Charles Dickens saying, “He shone this scorching, searing white light on what he thought was wrong.”

Bragg had planned to read from Conroy’s first book, “The Boo,” about a tough but beloved commander of cadets at The Citadel, the South Carolina military academy Conroy attended. But Bragg said that when he tried to prepare for the reading, he would cry every time he read a line out loud.

“Boo was the one you could count on, that would lift you up. And that sounds like somebody else we know,” Bragg said, referring to Conroy.

“What he loved more than anything,” Bragg said in closing, “was stories and readers.”

The AJC Decatur Book Festival continues Saturday and Sunday in downtown Decatur.

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First kids parade Saturday morning