Santini and son

Pat Conroy returns to the well to tell the rest of his family’s story.

BEAUFORT, S.C. — The Great Santini is not dead.

Pat Conroy ensures the legend survives. In the library of Pat’s hospitable Beaufort, S.C., home, he displays Santini’s numerous combat medals, mounted elegantly in a shadow box, a square yard of glory. He has also framed the flag from the fighter pilot’s military funeral, folded into a neat triangle.

And here, in pride of place, Pat hangs a portrait of Santini himself, Col. Donald Conroy, in full dress uniform, his face Photoshopped into the same frame as a photo of Robert Duvall, who played the inimitable title character in the movie “The Great Santini.”

In the composite picture, Duvall’s face is contorted in rage, his mouth stretched in a bellow. Superimposed in the space next to Duvall, we see the congenial Col. Conroy, his shoulders shrugged, his eyebrows raised, his hands turned palms up in a “What, me bully?” sort of gesture.

"That," says his son, "is my favorite photograph of Dad." 2 Santini's second act It's a tale of two Santinis, a character who has been rewritten multiple times.

The first person to invent the Great Santini was Santini himself, the self-mythologizing Donald Conroy, who bragged on his own acrobatic skill while training in a fighter jet over Lake Michigan. “I was better than the Great Santini out there,” he told his fellow Marines.

Then Pat and his six siblings learned the catechism: “Who is the greatest Marine aviator of all time?”

“You are, oh Great Santini!” they were coached to respond.

“We were not in the middle of a normal childhood,” Pat would later write, “yet none of us were sure, since it was the only childhood we would ever have.”

The second person to invent The Great Santini was Pat Conroy, who painted a caricature of his violent, charismatic father in his 1976 novel, “The Great Santini.”

Seething at the man who he says “stole my childhood,” Conroy ignited a well of suppressed anger to fuel that story. In the transparent guise of Marine aviator Bull Meecham, Donald Conroy was revealed as a reprehensible wife-beater and a physically abusive father.

The results were predictable, and surprising. His mother told him he’d made the family into pariahs. His grandparents were outraged.

His father’s response was different. Donald Conroy decided he would spend the rest of his life trying to make his son into a liar.

Or, at least that’s the way Pat tells it.

“Dad was not a great guy until after the book came out,” said the writer. “He didn’t show any signs of being a great guy, or even a nice guy. But he hated the portrait in the book so much that it caused a change in him.”

Family members say the change was dramatic. “He was a humbled man from the book,” said Pat’s younger brother, Tim Conroy, 55, a retired special education teacher who lives in Columbia, S.C.

Despite the unflattering portrayal, Donald Conroy also saw a hidden benefit: He recognized that he was, for good or ill, the hero of the book.

“Dad was completely bitter and angry at Pat until he realized the book could give him fame,” Tim said.

So the elder Conroy embraced the character. He printed business cards as “The Great Santini” and ordered a “Santini” front-bumper license tag. He accepted speaking engagements and began to attend book signings with his son, crowing when his line of autograph-seekers was longer than Pat’s. He’d sign the books “Yours truly, old lovable, likable, Col. Donald Conroy, USMC ret.”

Then the big time got bigger. Hollywood came to Beaufort, S.C, to shoot the movie version of the book, which came out in 1979. Suddenly Don and Peg Conroy were hobnobbing with movie stars. They were in heaven.

When the Academy nominated Robert Duvall for an Oscar for his portrayal of the Marine pilot but passed over Blythe Danner in the role of Santini’s wife, the elder Conroy told his son, “I got nominated; your mother got nothing.”

But he continued to soften. He started taking his grandchildren to Six Flags and showing up at soccer games. He started being not just great, but good.

“He had a great second act,” said Pat.

The writer felt obliged to tell the story of his father’s transformation. And so he returned to the story, for what he says is the last time, to write “The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son,” a memoir published last month.

Pat will discuss the book tonight at the Marcus Jewish Community Center as part of the center's annual book festival. 3 Beaufort roots Piloting a late-model Buick sedan, Pat, 68, cruises under live oaks and between the slightly shabby Italianate mansions of his adopted hometown of Beaufort, S.C., narrating the passing scenery with nonstop stories of Civil War generals and 20th century moviemakers.

Pat was a military brat who went to 10 different schools in 12 years. He was a boy without a home, and yet, when he landed in Beaufort, during his junior year in high school, he felt a sympathetic chord, as if he had arrived home.

After attending the Citadel military college in Charleston, S.C., Pat came back to Beaufort to teach at his old high school, and then to serve as the instructor at a schoolhouse on the isolated Daufuskie Island, which became the setting for his first successful book, the memoir “The Water is Wide.”

Twenty years later, after living in Atlanta, Rome, Paris and San Francisco, Pat moved back to South Carolina in 1991, first to Fripp Island, then to nearby Beaufort, a historic town of 12,000 on Port Royal Island.

“This is the Santini house, which was also the ‘Big Chill’ house,” he says, outside the gorgeous wedding cake mansion called Tidalholm. “Right in that driveway is where they filmed the basketball scene.”

That scene had the Great Santini repeatedly slamming a basketball into the head of his teenage son, Ben, played by a young Michael O’Keefe.

When the movie premiered in Beaufort, the whole town was there with the Conroy family seated in the front row. The basketball scene and ensuing battle cast a quiet pall over the audience, until brother Jim Conroy passed judgment on just how tough Duvall was, compared to the real thing: “Bambi,” he whispered. “Bambi.”

Pat’s Buick sidles past an open lawn at the edge of town, called The Green. In the novel and movie a drunken Santini ends up on his back on this lawn after a fistfight with his teenage son. In “The Death of Santini,” Conroy recounts the real-life fistfight that led to this same place, and the remarkable moment in which he wants to curse his father, but instead finds himself saying, “I love you, Dad.”

“It was something out of the deep,” he says, driving slowly.

His father, still plastered, rose and sprinted away from that terrifying phrase, only to fall again. The son followed and uttered the words again: “I love you, Dad,” triggering another flight, like a dog flushing an inebriated rabbit.

Says Pat, "It wasn't an epiphany. It didn't make me sink to my knees. But I saw that it horrified Dad, so I used it." 4 Family drama In that moment, Pat, who was actually 25 at the time, rescued his relationship with his father and set it in a new frame. In the ensuing years, as he wrote his first novel, he would rewrite that scene and others. He left out the more macabre incidents such as the time his father repeatedly slapped his toddler brother, or the evening his mother stabbed his father with a kitchen knife to forestall another beating. His editor told him his readers would abandon him if he turned his title character into a monster.

Therefore, the fictional Santini bought his daughter flowers for her first prom, gave his son his own flight jacket and took him out for his first drink when he turned 18. “That was complete horse-(manure),” says the author now. “I made it up.”

Though the book split his family apart and turned both his parents against him, its final effect has been a blessing, said brother Tim Conroy. “Maybe one of the greatest gifts Pat has given us as a family was to tell the story. Secrets are not a good thing.”

Pat returns to that tale one more time in “The Death of Santini.” He interviewed family members to get their versions of events. He aimed for the truth. His siblings give him high marks for accuracy, though brother Jim Conroy says, “We all see things from our own vantage points.”

The transformation of the Great Santini probably began before the book came out, said Jim, 58, who lives in Charlotte and works for a food distribution company. It was triggered by the father’s separation from Peg Conroy, who eventually divorced him (she entered the novel into evidence during the proceedings), and from the refusal of the older children to see him. “He became a different person,” said Jim, “and a lot of that was because his kids didn’t want to be around him.”

The story is even-handed says Mike Conroy, 61, a retired medical administrator who lives in Columbia, S.C., but he adds that, “Pat at heart is a storyteller. He cannot escape that, no matter what. He’ll witness an event, and he has a natural instinct to make it interesting.”

Interesting but not easy.

“It was a tough read. It was tough reliving it,” said Tim Conroy, who likened the experience to “beating myself with a lead pipe in the larynx so my wife would not hear me scream.”

Said Jim, "I doubt if I'll go to the movie." 5 Home at last In fact, Pat would like to see a movie on the final chapter in the Santini tale. He has contacted cast members Duvall, Danner, Lisa Jane Persky and O'Keefe, offering the story without charge if the original players reunite. O'Keefe says it will happen, "if I have anything to say about it."

Pat has lived in Beaufort and on nearby Fripp Island (where he still keeps a house) longer than any other location in his life, and his new book includes a hymn to the beautiful coastal town that has given him such peace.

Beaufort is the circle’s end. Though Pat has written more successful novels, including “Prince of Tides” and “Beach Music,” Santini is probably his most imperishable character. And Santini belongs to Beaufort, too.

Both his parents rest not far from each other, in the Beaufort National Cemetery, which is the last stop on Pat’s tour. Peg Conroy Egan, who died of leukemia in 1984, is buried with her second husband, John Egan. Donald Conroy, who never remarried and died of colon cancer in 1998, is buried alone, toward the edge of the grounds. His tombstone is inscribed “Great Santini,” a legend that goes with him into eternity.

After a lifetime of familial warfare and mental turmoil, Pat also seems at rest. He has, it seems, finally said what needs to be said about the Great Santini.

A diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes and a bout with congestive heart failure two years ago prompted him to give up drinking and adopt a lower-calorie diet. (Although on this day he will stray from his healthy plan into a 16-inch, all-the-way pizza.)

He has been married to novelist Cassandra King since 1997, and they share a columned house on the edge of a tidal river, where they can fish or boat to their hearts’ ease. (The welcome mat says “GO AWAY.”)

“I’m married to a nice woman,” he said recently. “We have a very nice life in Beaufort, S.C. She writes on one side of the house, I write on the other side. We watch the sun set over Battery Creek each night, and my life seems complete. I’m looking forward to the other books I’m going to write.”

HOW WE GOT THE STORY I first met Pat Conroy when he was writing "The Great Santini" and have interviewed him several times over the years. My first profile of him ran in the AJC in 1988 when Hollywood was casting "The Prince of Tides." For Personal Journeys, I traveled to Beaufort, S.C., and met Pat and his gracious wife, novelist Cassandra King, at their river-side house. Pat offered a guided tour of Beaufort, steering his Buick along the avenues of the postcard town, often just behind the horse-drawn carriages full of tourists, none of whom seemed to know who he was. He and his family were candid in interviews. Of being the subject of yet another Conroy book, his brother Jim Conroy said, with typical Conroy acerb humor, "It's not the highlight of our lives, Bo, but we're used to it." Bo Emerson Staff writer

About the reporter

Bo Emerson is an Atlanta native who joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1983. He has been a feature writer for most of his AJC career, covering music, the Olympics and Billy Graham’s last crusade. Emerson is a member of the Columbia Presbyterian Church in Decatur and is married to Maureen Downey, who covers education for the AJC.

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