At the Pat Conroy Literary Center, visitors are invited to sit at the desk where Conroy wrote “Beach Music” on Fripp Island, S.C. CONTRIBUTED BY SUZANNE VAN ATTEN
Photo: Suzanne Van Atten
Photo: Suzanne Van Atten

Pat Conroy Literary Center a living legacy to author’s mentorship

Literary festival in South Carolina features Cassandra King Conroy, Delia Owens, Janisse Ray

Pat Conroy drew his last breath in March 2016, but before he was even buried, his longtime literary agent Marly Rusoff began floating the idea among the author’s friends and family of establishing a nonprofit literary center in his name. Rusoff brought a lot of experience to the table, having co-founded The Loft literary center in Minneapolis in 1975. Seven months later, the Pat Conroy Literary Center opened in a 700-square-foot historic house in downtown Beaufort, South Carolina, where Conroy lived the last few years of his life.

Today the center is located in a 3,000-square-foot former bank building that houses a growing collection of Conroy memorabilia and hosts a variety of literary events, such as book club meetings, children’s book fairs, author events and book signings.

It also produces the Pat Conroy Literary Festival, which grew out of the Pat Conroy at 70 literary conference held in 2015 to celebrate what would turn out to be the author’s last birthday. Organized by the University of South Carolina Press (USC Press), where Conroy was editor at large for the Story River Books fiction imprint, the event featured appearances by Southern literary luminaries such as Ron Rash, Patti Callahan Henry and Mary Alice Monroe.

Conroy reportedly was uncomfortable being the center of attention, but he reveled in his interactions with attendees. Jonathan Haupt, executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center and former director of publishing for USC Press, likes to tell the story about that first festival’s closing night event when, after Pat received his second standing ovation, Haupt suggested they make it an annual event.

“Over my dead body,” Conroy reportedly replied.

“I’d like to think we’ve taken him at his word,” said Haupt, with a wink to the author’s dark sense of humor.

Jonathan Haupt is executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, S.C. CONTRIBUTED BY SUZANNE VAN ATTEN
Photo: For the AJC

The fourth annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival will be held Oct. 29-Nov. 3 in Beaufort, and it promises to be a significant event in contemporary Southern literature. Conroy’s widow, Cassandra King Conroy, will launch her memoir “Tell Me a Story: My Life With Pat Conroy.” Educator and author Bernie Schein will discuss his new book, “Pat Conroy: Our Lifelong Friendship.” And there will be a panel discussion among contributors to “Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy,” including cookbook author Sallie Ann Robinson, who was one of Conroy’s students when he taught on Daufuskie Island. Most events are free.

But the festival doesn’t just focus on Conroy. There will also be featured appearances by authors Delia Owens (“Where the Crawdads Sing”), Mary Alice Monroe (“The Beach House”), Janisse Ray (“Ecology of a Cracker Childhood”) and Harrison Scott Key (“Congratulations, Who Are You Again?”). Other events include book signings, book sales, open mic readings and children’s events.

The festival’s focus this year is on conservation and memoir, said Haupt.

“We try to touch on all the themes that were central to Pat’s writing and teaching life,” he said.

New this year is a partnership with the South Carolina Writers Association, which brings its annual Fall Retreat, a weekend of immersive writing workshops, to Beaufort to coincide with the festival. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), which holds community education classes for adults 50 and older, will also hold classes for OLLI members.

And, of course, the Pat Conroy Literary Center will be open for tours. There visitors can sit at the desk where Conroy wrote “Beach Music.” They can peruse the author’s private book collection, containing many signed first editions. They can see photographs, report cards, yearbooks, memorabilia from the movies made from Conroy’s books and a signed portrait of “The Boo,” Lt. Col. Thomas Courvoisie, commandant of cadets when Conroy attended The Citadel military college in Charleston, South Carolina.

Portraits of the author hang at the Pat Conroy Literary Center. CONTRIBUTED BY SUZANNE VAN ATTEN
Photo: For the AJC

Many of the center’s docents were friends of Conroy’s; his sister Kathy is a docent on Sundays. And several members of Conroy’s family, including his widow, are on the board of directors.

“There is nothing that we could have done to honor Pat that he would have liked more than this sort of living legacy,” said Cassandra. “At first, we were saying, we’re carrying on Pat’s legacy. Then we kind of caught ourselves and realized that his legacy will be carried on through his books. What we wanted to do is carry on his legacy of teaching and supporting other writers.”

To that end, the center hosted 120 literary events in 10 states in 2018. In addition to the Pat Conroy Literary Festival, which is the organization’s largest annual event, the center hosts the Prince of Scribes Writing Conference, a creative writing program in prison and Camp Conroy, a summer program for kids ages 8-15 who, this past summer, wrote, illustrated, designed and produced a 78-page publication on recycling.

“Jonathan is such a dynamo,” said Cassandra. “He’s just so dedicated and committed. It’s a nonprofit organization, so we have to raise funds to make it work, and that takes a lot of work.”

The center has already become TripAdvisor’s top-ranked destination for the city.

Post-it notes containing visitors’ expressions of gratitude to the author, including one from Pat Conroy’s daughter Jessica, are displayed at the Pat Conroy Literary Center. CONTRIBUTED BY SUZANNE VAN ATTEN
Photo: For the AJC

“Pat Conroy was our No. 1 ambassador,” said Blakely Williams, president and CEO of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce. “So many of his books were love letters to Beaufort. This center is a place for the world to come and be introduced to the hometown that he chose and that he loved so much.”

EVENT PREVIEW

Pat Conroy Literary Festival. Oct. 29-Nov. 3. Most events free; some $15-$45. Multiple venues, including the University of South Carolina Beaufort-Bluffton campus Center for the Arts, 801 Carteret St., Beaufort, South Carolina, and Old Bay Marketplace, 917 Bay St., Beaufort, South Carolina. 843-379-7025, patconroyliteraryfestival.orgfacebook.com/PatConroyFestival.

Pat Conroy Literary Center. Noon-4 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays. Free. 905 Port Republic St., Beaufort, South Carolina. 843-379-7025, patconroyliterarycenter.org.

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