Beaufort Mayor and close friend Billy Keyserling said, “His impact has really been to the region and opening up eyes, concurrently with the growth of the greater Lowcountry. He was a part of turning the eyes to this part of the world.”Jonathan Haupt, director of the University of South Carolina Press, said, “It’s a sad, sad day for South Carolina and for literature.”
Conroy appeared to feel fine when the University of South Carolina Beaufort hosted the “Pat Conroy at 70” festival organized by Haupt in late October. Numerous writers, friends and family members came to celebrate a life that was on an uptick.
Conroy had never been busier, more productive, or more public. In addition to his own writing, he was promoting a stable of other writers in the Story River Books imprint he edited for the University of South Carolina Press.
Conroy had been on a health kick for four years. He said that’s when he nearly died of his own bad habits, so he quit drinking, hired a nutritionist, joined the YMCA, lost weight, andlast year opened the Mina & Conroy Fitness Studio in Port Royal with his personal trainer.
“There is nothing on my resume that indicates I’ll be successful in this unusual endeavor,” he wrote on his web page. “But I’m doing it because there are four or five books I’d like to write before I meet with Jesus of Nazareth — as my mother promised me — on the day of my untimely death, or reconcile myself to a long stretch of nothingness as my non-believing friends insist.”
Home at last
Alexia Jones Helsley says she was Conroy’s first editor.
The daughter of the Baptist preacher in town was editor of the Tidal Wave newspaper at Beaufort High School, where Conroy first latched onto the Lowcountry in the remarkable class of 1963.
“He took a track meet and turned it into a race between good and the Devil,” Helsley said. “It was hilarious.”
Another time, principal Bill Dufford asked Conroy as president of the senior class to address the girls before a powder puff football game.
“He took a napkin from the cafeteria and wrote this little poem on it and got up and read it,” Helsley said. “We thought he was so talented, but we had no idea how talented he was.”
Conroy was a basketball star and Best All Around in a class that had six National Merit Finalists, and included Daisy Youngblood, a sculptor who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”; Daun van Ee, editor of the papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Library of Congress; and Julie Zachowski, retired director of the Beaufort County library system. Helsley is an archivist who has written a history of Beaufort. Conroy is among three members of the class inducted into the school’s hall of fame.
Conroy wrote often of inspiring teachers there, like Millen Ellis and novelist Ann Head, but especially Eugene Norris.
“He taught me to value the old, to sharpen my eye for the most intricate detail, and to strengthen all the appetites upon which beauty itself fed,” Conroy would later write. “In the end, Gene Norris handed me the key to my first hometown and made it feel like the most sublime gift.”
A new life
Conroy returned to Beaufort High as a teacher after graduating from The Citadel, but a much different school on Daufuskie Island cast the die for his life.
“The Water is Wide” — and the movie version “Conrack” — described Conroy’s year battling authorities to stretch the stunningly limited opportunities and achievement of students on a remote island.
A number of Beaufort women, including Harriet Keyserling, typed portions of the manuscript written in longhand on a legal pad in a breathless dash to get it to his publisher on time. It was published in 1972, launching a new career.
When Conroy was inducted into Penn Center’s 1862 Circle in 2011, he was cited for helping show the world the South’s unequal public education for blacks and whites. He told the crowd that despite the abuse he took for saying it, he thought he got it right.
It set in motion a career of writing what others would not dare write. It cost him relationships at his alma mater and in his family.
In 1976, he published the look inside his family of seven children, a beautiful mother and a boorish fighter pilot. In “The Great Santini” he told of his father. Col. Don Conroy was a heroic Marine, but he beat his wife and children. To the outside world, the book was a smash hit. The movie was filmed in Beaufort.
Conroy was banned from campus after the 1980 book about The Citadel, “Lords of Discipline.”
As other books chronicled the rough edges of a life like his own, with two divorces, suicidal thoughts and psychiatric issues, Conroy’s smooth writing and brutal honesty made him a regular on the New York Times best-seller list. Other titles include “South of Broad” set in Charleston, “The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life” and “My Reading Life.” His books were sprinkled with local favorites from Dr. Herbert Keyserling to Snowball the albino dolphin.
He later found peace with The Citadel, and wrote another book about his experience there, “My Losing Season.”
And he found a happy marriage to novelist Cassandra King. They have lived on the banks of Battery Creek in Beaufort, which they both can see from their writing rooms, and where he could smell the pluff mud late in the day while enjoying a cigar and a Lowcountry sunset only he could put in words.
He had lived in Atlanta, Italy and San Francisco. But in 1993, he came home for good.
Conroy also found peace with his father, the Great Santini. That was chronicled in the 2013 book drenched with the people and places of Beaufort, “The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son.”
“If my father knew how many tears his children had shed since his death,” Conroy wrote in his father’s eulogy, “he would be mortally ashamed of us all and begin yelling that he should’ve been tougher on us all, knocked us into better shape — that he certainly didn’t mean to raise a passel of kids so weak and tacky they would cry at his death.”