Pat Conroy, the best-selling novelist and proud adoptive son of the Lowcountry who wrote lyrically about Charleston and unflinchingly about The Citadel, died Friday. He was 70.
The author of “The Great Santini,” “The Lords of Discipline” and “The Prince of Tides” and eight other books passed away shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died at 7:43 p.m., surrounded by loved ones and family.
It was an ironic turn worthy of a novelist, as Conroy — who had had health problems in the past — in recent years had taken serious steps to improve his health.
But pancreatic cancer often goes undetected until it is too late. Conroy announced his illness last month, and vowed to fight.
“I feel that Pat in many ways had more than 100 years of life. He made his days count and accomplished so much in such a short amount of time,” said Joe Riley, Conroy’s friend and the former mayor of Charleston. “Pat Conroy was a treasure as a friend – a gracious, joyful, generous spirit. His heart just entertained you and lifted you up. Even if you were involved in a serious conversation, he found a way to make you laugh. He was a very good man, a good person, and he cared about right and wrong.”
Conroy was perhaps South Carolina’s most famous man of letters in this or any period of its history. His gushing, over-the-top prose introduced people “from off” to the wonders of pluff mud, the great saltmarsh and the Carolina sea islands.
He told stories of sprawling, dysfunctional families — flawed, wounded people — but managed to find the humor and joy in everything that was the South.
“He was a wonderful human being who, notwithstanding the many mountains he climbed, which he shared with us in his stories, probably had the best two years of his life recently,” said his friend, Beaufort Mayor Bill Keyserling. “He had cleaned up his act, been working out at the fitness center, been involved with USC’s Story River Press, and he was out and about speaking. He was just sideswiped by cancer and it took him fast. We’ll always miss him, but he’s lifted all of us up.”
The son of a Chicago-born career Marine pilot and a Southern belle, Donald Patrick Conroy was born in Atlanta in 1945. The military family moved often during his childhood, sometimes twice a year. But when his father — the model for Santini — was eventually stationed in Beaufort during Conroy’s high school years, the future writer swore he had found his true home.
All of Conroy’s books were set in the South Carolina Lowcountry. In the opening line of “The Prince of Tides,” he wrote, “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”
Although he lived briefly in Rome and San Francisco, for most of his life he resided in Beaufort and on Fripp Island.
“When I finally got to South Carolina I said, ‘Mom,’ it was my twenty-third move, and I was 15 when I came here, and I said, ‘Mom, I ain’t movin’ again,” Conroy told historian Walter Edgar in 2014. “So poor Beaufort, through no fault of their own, I latched like a barnacle on that town.”
Conroy and his six siblings had a tumultuous childhood, suffering at the hands of an abusive and often violent father. For years, the family kept quiet about their turmoil.
Conroy’s high school English teacher, Gene Norris, became a good friend and introduced the young military brat to a larger world of literature — as well as the famous South Carolina writer Archibald Rutledge and a young civil rights leader named Martin Luther King Jr.
It instilled in him a lifelong love of teachers, and briefly led him into the profession. But he became a writer, Conroy said, because of his mother reading to him as a child.
“Reading has changed my life utterly,” he said in 2014. “Because I read, I wanted to write. Because I lived and read, I wanted to write stories, ‘cause I lived in South Carolina, ‘cause I went to The Citadel — and my Lord, The Citadel — I had stories flying out of me from everywhere. And because of this I wanted to write it down and have young kids read me the way I once read Thomas Wolfe.”
The Citadel mourned his passing Friday night.
“This is a very sad day for The Citadel family. Pat Conroy was a world-renowned author, active in his community and a passionate alumnus of The Citadel. He will be missed,” Lt. Gen. John Rosa, Citadel President said.
He wore The Ring
Although Conroy had no particular calling to the military, he enrolled as an English major at The Citadel because he thought it would make his father proud. There, he was most notable as a star of the Bulldogs basketball team, which he wrote about nearly 40 years later in a memoir, “My Losing Season.”
He grew to have a love-hate relationship with the military college, but gained an unabiding love of Charleston, a city he returned to time and again in his books.
“There is no city on Earth quite like Charleston,” Conroy wrote in his foreword to “The Mayor,” the biography of Joe Riley. “From the time I first came there in 1961, it’s held me in its enchanter’s power, the wordless articulation of its singularity, its withheld and magical beauty. Wandering through its streets can be dreamlike and otherworldly, its alleyways and shortcuts both fragrant and mysterious, yet as haunted as time turned in on itself.”
Shortly after graduation from The Citadel in 1967, he wrote his first book, a short ode to commandant of cadets Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, whom the Corps affectionately called “The Boo.”
Unable to find a publisher, Conroy and Courvoisie published “The Boo” themselves, but not before having it vetted by a young Charleston attorney and Citadel alumnus named Joe Riley. The two became lifelong friends.
The Citadel banned the book initially. But it would seem mild in comparison to what would come later.
Conrack the teacher
Conroy took work as a teacher in the Beaufort County School District, where he was assigned a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island. He soon came to realize he was expected to be nothing more than a baby sitter to an island full of underprivileged black children. He made it his mission to give them a good education.
His unorthodox methods and ambitious plans led to his dismissal, but he got his revenge by writing a memoir of his experiences called “The Water is Wide.” When his agent told him the publisher offered $8,000, Conroy said he couldn’t afford it. The young writer did not realize that was what they would pay him as an advance on royalties.
Soon, Conroy turned to fiction, bringing the horrors of his childhood to life in his first novel, “The Great Santini,” which was later filmed as a movie starring Robert Duvall and Blythe Danner. The book was controversial in his family for its harsh look at his early life, although his siblings later said it was a much kinder version of the story than reality.
His second novel, “The Lords of Discipline,” centered on a thinly veiled version of the Citadel and its troubles with integration, involving a fictional secret group on campus devoted to making sure the college did not have black cadets. In the novel, Conroy found his novelist’s voice in the opening line, “I wear the ring.”
“His writing about Charleston and The Citadel was so powerful,” Riley said. “His pen was so passionate and descriptive.”
“The Lords of Discipline” illustrated his pride in the school but also offered a brutally honest appraisal of its shortcomings. The book began an open war with The Citadel that would not subside until years later, years after he championed the first female cadet in the early 1990s.
When a movie company wanted to film its version of “The Lords of Discipline” on campus — which, like “The Great Santini,” was partially written at Riley’s house South of Broad — The Citadel refused because of the book’s perceived negative portrayal of the school. Conroy chided the school’s board of trustees in The News and Courier for forgoing the easiest money they would have ever made.
A famously sharp wit
At the time, Conroy was living in Rome and writing “The Prince of Tides,” which would become his most successful and famous novel, spawning the Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte movie. Conroy co-wrote the screenplay.
Conroy became known as South Carolina’s most famous liberal, championing equal rights, women at The Citadel. He marched alongside Riley in 2000 on a successful campaign to take the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome.
“South Carolina lost a beloved son tonight,” Gov. Nikki Haley tweeted Friday night. “Pat Conroy will be missed. We can find comfort knowing his words and love for SC will live on.”
In the early 2000s, his cold war with The Citadel thawed and he was back on campus often, attending ball games and commencements. When Courvoisie passed away, he delivered the eulogy in Summerall Chapel.
Conroy’s books were routinely best-sellers after the 1986 publication of “The Prince of Tides.” He became so famous that, ultimately, the estate of Margaret Mitchell approached him about writing a sequel to the most famous Southern novel, “Gone With the Wind” – a book that he admired.
But his sharp wit was on full display when he reacted to the trustees’ stipulation that he could not mention homosexuality, miscegenation or kill Scarlett.
“I told them that if they insisted on that,’’ Conroy famously said, “I’d write the novel with this first sentence: After they made love, Rhett turned to Ashley Wilkes and said, ‘Ashley, have I ever told you that my grandmother was black?’”
Despite his wicked and often off-color sense of humor, Conroy was a gentle soul, generous and encouraging to other writers. He often supplied effusive praise that ended up on the jackets of first-time novelists’ books.
“The water is wide and he has now passed over.” said his wife, the novelist Cassandra King Conroy,
At the end of “The Prince of Tides,” the main character, Tom Wingo, offered what is a fitting epitaph to Conroy’s life:
“He was a coach, a teacher and a well-loved man. And it is enough, Lord. It is enough.”