Pat Conroy wrote memorable stories, led memorable life

As he lay dying, Pat Conroy’s family eased him from this life into the next by reading poems, playing country music and singing to him.

“We did sing the Marine Corps Hymn,” his sister Kathy Harvey said. “It was the only way to send him out.”

Conroy, whose vivid, muscular prose brought to life the storied streets of historic Charleston, the punishing rigor of The Citadel and disturbing themes from his troubled childhood, died Friday at 70, not long after revealing he had pancreatic cancer.

“The water is wide and he has now passed over,” his wife, novelist Cassandra King Conroy, said in a statement that invoked the title of his 1972 memoir about teaching children in a two-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, S.C. Funeral arrangements were coming together on Saturday.

Conroy shared his diagnosis in a Feb. 15 blog and social media post, and told fans he was ready for a fight.

“I’ve spent my whole writing life trying to find out who I am and I don’t believe I’ve even come close,” he wrote. “I am grateful to all my beloved readers, my friends and my family for their prayers. I owe you a novel and I intend to deliver it.”

On Saturday, a statement from family and friends expressed a crushing grief: “There are rare people whose very existence makes life bearable for the rest of us for reasons of grace, wisdom and understanding. Pat was such a man. To say he will be missed is the grandest of understatements.”

Donald Patrick Conroy was born in Atlanta on Oct. 26, 1945, the first of seven children in a military family that moved often. He came back and lived here for a time as an adult; it was in Atlanta that Conroy wrote “The Great Santini.” The 1976 novel, which became a film starring Robert Duvall, was a thinly veiled account of his turbulent childhood and its publication resulted not only in a divorce from his first wife, but also the divorce of his parents. “His mother presented a copy of ‘The Great Santini’ to the judge as evidence in divorce proceedings against his father,” the biography on Conroy’s website notes.

Conroy wrote about his alma mater, The Citadel, in the nonfiction book “The Boo,” the affectionate nickname given to Assistant Commandant of Cadets Lt. Colonel Thomas N. Courvoisie. A fictional inspiration, Col. Thomas Berrineau, known as “The Bear,” showed up in his novel “Lords of Discipline.”

It, too, inspired a film by the same name, starring David Keith and Robert Prosky, and also caused a personal rift. Many in The Citadel community took issue with the jarring depiction of the school and he was persona non grata for decades.

The school and writer reconciled, though, and Conroy was invited to speak at commencement in 2001. His speech was as unflinching as his novel had been.

“There were many years when I thought that Saddam Hussein or Jane Fonda had a better chance of addressing this class than I did,” he said. He then took a graceful turn in citing the first line of his controversial book.

“I tried to think of a line or words that would sum up better than anything how I felt and how other people feel about this college … I came up with this line: ‘I wear the ring.’ I think it is the best line I have ever written and the best English sentence I am capable of writing.”

Curiously, the rapprochement was partly engineered by Conroy’s father, Col. Donald Conroy. Pat Conroy wrote about the thawing of his relationship with his dad in the 2013 memoir “The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son.”

“I’d hated him since I was a child,” Conroy told the AJC in a 2013 interview that explored his father’s transformation spurred by the menacing image “The Great Santini” presented. “Dad began a campaign to change. I’d never heard of anybody changing because of a book but he tried. But he tried. It took a long time, he had to practice being a nice guy, but he turned out to be a very nice man.”

The diverse range of mourners issuing statements on Saturday reflected both Conroy’s literary prominence and his down-to-earth good nature.

“Pat has been my beloved friend and author for 35 years, spanning his career from ‘The Prince of Tides’ to today,” said his longtime editor and publisher, Nan A. Talese of Doubleday. “He will be cherished as one of America’s favorite and bestselling writers, and I will miss him terribly.”

Mina Truong, who with Conroy opened a health fitness studio in Port Royal, S.C., shared thoughts as well. He’d written about his personal trainer turned business partner in a courtly blog post in March 2015:

“So sorry, Mr. Pat. English very bad,” she’d say.

“No problem, Mina. My Japanese is much worse.”

On Saturday, Truong posted a video of him happily pedaling away on an exercise bike and shared a touching anecdote from when she was his personal trainer at a YWCA: “I noticed this gentle man, who was so very tall, and very friendly to everyone. Everyone always wanted to talk to him and he never turned anyone away who wanted to talk. I had no idea who he was! I just knew him as my client, Mr. Pat.”

Conroy’s books – “The Boo,” “The Water is Wide,” “The Great Santini,” “The Lords of Discipline,” “The Prince of Tides,” “Beach Music,” “My Losing Season,” “The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life,” “South of Broad,” “My Reading Life” and “The Death of Santini” – have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.

Conroy’s friend, former College of Charleston President Alexander Sanders, may have helped nudge those numbers along. His stem-winders, such as the tale of Happy the Tiger, who lived at a carwash, had a way of popping up in some of Conroy’s work. Happy showed up in “The Prince of Tides.”

“Everybody knows stories,” Sanders said, shrugging off his contribution. “The talent is in writing them down.”

He and his wife, Zoe, visited Conroy on Wednesday and was able to get a laugh out of otherwise somnolent Conroy with one more yarn.

“What he did at bottom, that made him a great writer and a significant figure of the time,” said Sanders, “is that he enabled us to see ourselves as others see us.”

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