Telling tales about Pat Conroy: The author’s friends reminisce

Conroy died of pancreatic cancer March 4 at his home in Beaufort, S.C., a town that reached its apotheosis in Conroy’s prose.

Beaufort is returning the favor. Friends and family have established a yearly Pat Conroy Literary Festival in that lowcountry Eden, and are working to create the Pat Conroy Literary Center on Beaufort’s historic waterfront.

Atlanta is also celebrating Conroy, starting with the keynote address at the AJC Decatur Book Festival, Sept. 2-4. Speaking will be novelist Rick Bragg, Conroy’s widow and fellow novelist Cassandra King, Conroy’s daughter Melissa Conroy, poet and novelist Ron Rash and journalist Bronwen Dickey.

This is just the beginning. In the works are two biographies of the ebullient Conroy, a memoir of friendship from the inimitable Bernie Schein and a book of essays from Conroy himself, called “A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life.”

“In the end, I think this is only the beginning,” said Daren Wang, director of the AJC Decatur Book Festival. “I think Pat’s legacy is going to grow in years to come, and not shrink.”

His friends and family recently talked about the talented, garrulous, nervous military brat, who arrived in Beaufort the summer before his junior year of high school, and found a home.

1. Teen years in Beaufort

After only one year in Beaufort, Pat was chosen president of his senior class.

Bernie Schein, childhood friend: You’d hear his stupid (expletive) voice coming across the PA system with the pledge of allegiance every morning. He was almost one of those wear-a-tie-to-school kids.

Bill Dufford, former principal of Beaufort High School: “He came to us as a very fragile kid. There were an awful lot of hardships in his home life that we weren’t aware of. We had moved into a brand new school. There was new shrubbery, bushes to be trimmed, holes to be filled in. I was a unique principal. I went outside and did that during the summer. The summer between his junior and senior years, Pat took it upon himself to hitchhike in every morning from his home in Laurel Bay and help me do all that outside work. In the afternoon I’d let him go in the gym and practice his basketball by himself. His daddy would come by and pick him up in late afternoon.

Schein: Pat was the greatest basketball player to ever come out of Beaufort. He was all-state. He had eyes in the back of his head. I always theorized later that that peripheral vision he had that was so great was (the result of his) awareness that Santini’s fist would come out in the world, and come at him, so he was always looking around. (Santini was the name of the abusive father in Conroy’s 1976 novel, “The Great Santini,” which was based on Conroy’s father.)

Pat graduated from Beaufort and attended the South Carolina military college The Citadel, an experience he both criticizes and praises in his novel “The Lords of Discipline.”

Schein:It was a very cruel place. Pat’s Citadel experience was “Santini” all over again. What I think he was saying (in “The Lords of Discipline”) was he admired courage. I wear the ring, therefore I’m not a hypocrite. I did it, I went through it, I was an insider, therefore I can write about it.

2. The teaching life

After graduating from The Citadel, Pat taught at Beaufort High School.

Katherine Clark, Conroy’s biographer: I asked him what were the happiest moments of his life. It turned out that all the happiest moments occurred before he published his first novel, before “The Great Santini” came out. It was the two years that he taught at Beaufort High school.

Valerie Sayers, student at Beaufort High School and author: We were all in love with him. He was handsome, very charismatic, and he was serious. He was going to teach us a serious course, and it wasn’t (expletive). We adored him.

In 1968 Conroy taught at an isolated all-black, one-room school on Daufuskie Island, S.C. He detailed his experience in the memoir “The Water is Wide.”

Sallie Ann Robinson, student on Daufuskie: One thing I’ll never forget: When he came we were drinking powdered milk. He wanted to know why weren’t we drinking fresh milk. The answer was, they couldn’t get it to us. He made it his business to make sure we got milk. And a lot of people have no idea he did that.

3. The Atlanta scene

Conroy married Barbara Jones and moved to Atlanta

, where he wrote most of “The Great Santini.” He met Cliff Graubart and helped turn Graubart’s store, the Old New York Book Shop, into a destination.

Cliff Graubart: He came up with the idea of having an autograph party (for Newsweek writer Vern Smith’s novel “The Jones Men”). I went to Tower Liquors and bought 20 bottles of Andre champagne at $2.97 a bottle. It was a rousing success. It became a tradition.

Conroy encouraged other writers in various ways. He told his editor at Houghton Mifflin that former Atlanta newsman Terry Kay had 150 good pages of a first novel ready for her to read. Kay hadn’t written a single page.

Terry Kay: I went over and yelled at him and cursed and screamed. I said I had no interest in fiction. He listened to me rave, and he said, “You have two choices: You can tell her I was drunk and I lied, or you can write 150 pages.” He knew what I would do. I set down and wrote 150 pages. They offered me a small advance and a contract.

Around that time Pat taught a short course in creative writing at The Paideia School.

Jessica Handler, Conroy’s student at Paideia and author: He was charismatic, he was dynamic, he was a little scary because he was really kind of just “on it.” And he was a lot of fun. What Pat did for me as a teenage writer in that classroom was to tacitly say, “Yeah, you’re on the right path.” Some people are natural teachers.

4. Literary superstar

Pat’s career exploded in 1986 with the publication of “The Prince of Tides.” Terry Kay remembers the run-up:

Kay: We were hiking in the mountains with “the boys” — Cliff, Bernie, Frank Smith, Dan Sklar — in 1985 or so, when he was working on “The Prince of Tides.” At the end of the day we were drinking very good wine, and he looked at us and said “Boys, they’re about to make me famous.” He was the most perfect candidate to be made famous of any writer we knew. He had the charisma, the intellect, the goodness.

“The Prince of Tides” became a Hollywood movie starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte, and Pat became a literary star. His book signings were legendary.

Sayers: He invited me to his publishing party for “The Prince of Tides” in New York and he spent an hour making people shake my hand and saying the name of my book (“Due East”) over and over.

Jonathan Haupt, University of South Carolina Press director: (At a book-signing for Conroy’s memoir “My Reading Life”), 1,600 people showed up. Pat started signing at 7 p.m. and he didn’t finish until 1 in the morning. There were people who got out of line, went to dinner and came back, and Pat was still there. People showed up for him, and he was going to show up for them.

Conroy: They’d start telling Pat their story. People that would never tell an intimate story to a stranger. And of course, Pat would steal their story.

5. Maintaining relationships

Pat was known among friends for his long telephone conversations, but he rarely answered the phone when others called.

Rick Bragg, friend and author: He would call me, like he would many people, and he’d say, “I now see it’s up to me to keep this dying friendship alive.”

Kay: He always said the same thing to me as he said to everybody: “I guess it’s up to me to keep this dying friendship alive.” But did you ever try to get him on the phone? If you want to be my friend, answer the phone!

Melissa Conroy, Conroy’s daughter and author: He wasn’t always available. He was gone a lot when I was a kid. The one time when he was very available was when I had a crisis. When I was pregnant with my second child, I was having a rough first trimester, losing weight, getting sick all the time, then I got this horrible rash on my face. At that point he was calling me every night, and he would say, “Can I speak to my daughter, Quasimodo?” He was a such a huge person, anybody who had him in their life, it was a joy just to be around him.

In 1995, after two failed marriages, Pat met novelist Cassandra King at a literary conference. They were married in 1998.

Clark: He finally got his personal life together when he met (Cassandra). He had such a period of calm and peace and stability. His life had never had stability before. I think it gave him a second wind.

Late in his career, Pat became editor of Story River Books, an imprint of the University of South Carolina Press, using his influence to help “mid-list” writers from the South get published.

Haupt: Pat wrote forwards for many of the Story River novels. I did edit those for him. We all understood what (the forwards) needed to be, but he always wanted to give away the ending. Short of putting a spoiler alert on top of the forward, I had to edit those things out.

Pat wrote the memoir “The Death of Santini” to show how much his father, Don Conroy, changed after the publication of “The Great Santini.” The elder Conroy died in 1998.

Graubart: (Don Conroy) turned out to a very good grandfather. He was a terrible parent but a great grandfather. Pat caused that with his book.

Conroy: Ultimately (Pat was) the rescuer of the family. I would think they would all agree now, my siblings. It’s undeniable, the transformation that happens with my father in the story. He becomes a super grandparent.

5. The last year

Haupt and others organized a get-together in Beaufort in October 2015 for Pat’s 70th birthday that turned into “A Literary Festival Celebrating South Carolina’s Prince of Titles.” Writers, friends and family lined up to give him praise.  

Ron Rash, friend and author: I’m so glad we did that. It was months before he was diagnosed. I don’t know how to say this right, but it was like he didn’t have to be dead to hear people tell him what a great guy he was.

Discussing “The Death of Santini,” Pat once told me, “there were some comic parts to Dad’s death. Unfortunately for the Conroys there are comic parts to all of our deaths. We cannot help that.”

Clark: He had just gotten back from the hospital that had given him his diagnosis, and he gave me a call. He said, “This is the soon to be dead subject of your oral biography.”

Friends and family gathered at his Beaufort home during his last days.

Haupt: If Pat had been able to enjoy it, he would have. It was this deeply emotional gathering. There was the reading of poetry, the playing of music. We were trying to send Pat out on a sea of words, all carried out with best of intentions. Juxtaposed against that, there was a septic line malfunction in the backyard, and there was an endless crew of workers, digging back there. I know the neighbors thought we were going to bury him in the backyard at the end of the day. The trench was big enough to bury all of us, if there was some mass suicide. I think he would have found it hilarious.

Conroy has written an unpublished young adult novel and parts of other books.

Clark: There were a couple of novels he had planned to write, one of which he called his Atlanta novel. There’s a whole period in there you don’t find in his other novels, things he touches on in his other books.

Catherine Seltzer, Conroy’s literary biographer: He’s been talking about the Atlanta book for a long time. He very much wanted to write that. He had a Charleston novel in progress. He kept returning to Charleston in his imagination. There is a significant chunk of it, but it’s not finished. I don’t know what’s going to happen to it.

This oral history was compiled primarily from telephone interviews, which were edited for clarity and length.

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