Larger than Life: Pat Conroy’s lasting influence on three Triad residents
PHOTOS BY TODD TURNER
On March 4, 2016, Pat Conroy, perhaps the greatest Southern writer of our time, departed from the salt marshes of South Carolina’s Lowcountry for what one day awaits us all. His books are why libraries have waiting lists.
Pat Conroy’s harrowing recollections growing up as the son of a 6’4″ 240 pound Marine Corps fighter pilot — for fictional purposes dubbed The Great Santini — jumpstarted his nascent writing career, enshrined in a critically acclaimed movie of the same name starring Robert Duvall in the title role.
A taste of his brutal upbringing, ruled over by a violently domineering father for whom disfunction was the function, can be found in his autobiographical best-seller My Reading Life: “In writing The Great Santini I had to consider the fact of my father’s heroism. His job was extraordinarily dangerous and I never knew it. He never once complained about the perils of his vocation. He was one of those men who make the men of other nations pause before attacking America. I learned I would not want to be an enemy soldier or tank when Don Conroy passed overhead. My father had made orphans out of many boys and girls in Asia during those years and I prayed for God to make an orphan out of me. His job was to kill people when his nation asked him to, pure and simple. And his loving of his kids was never written into his job description.”
To the end of his life, Conroy wrote all of his books in longhand, never learning to type as a result of his father confronting Beaufort High’s principal after discovering the boy had signed up for a typing course. He demanded a course change, “My son is not going to be a secretary!”
Crediting an unlikely writing career to his high school English teacher Gene Norris, who became both lifelong friend and mentor, Conroy wrote, “Eugene Norris hands me a book, it’s Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel and he says, ‘I think you’re finally ready for the many pleasures of Thomas Wolfe.’ He gives me this book, it’s about a kid my age, narrating a story of this family, this family is in terrible shape with this grotesque father. I had a grotesque father. This mother trying desperately to make her way with this grotesque father. Every single character in that book I identified with.” Conroy would one day win UNC-Chapel Hill’s coveted Thomas Wolfe Prize.
After graduating from The Citadel, Pat Conroy arrived to teach English at Beaufort High School in 1968 where he met a young educator in the history department, current Greensboro City Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann.
“Of course, Pat had graduated from Beaufort High School. We had a significant number of single teachers, male and female, people just out of school, as I was, and some of my other friends were,” Hoffmann said. “It was a really wonderful time, Beaufort was a beautiful old town, it’s quite magical, just really interesting, special people.”
Hoffmann describes Pat as, “Bigger than life. He filled a room. Certainly he had had some trauma in his life and there were some down periods but I think he, in general, loved life and really had this attachment to Beaufort and to the water and marsh and what life in Beaufort is really like. Pat was young. If you look at some of his early pictures he was quite dashing looking as a young man. He was a raconteur, a storyteller, he was well-read. He was really smart and funny and witty. But we kinda ran with a smart, witty, interesting group.”
“In terms of Pat’s personal life…” Nancy Hoffmann chuckles, “I can remember two things that year. He came to school one day and his electricity had been turned off in his tiny little house. Pat was just… he was a creative person, a very fertile mind so mundane things were not his concern. That same year on April 15 he was in the teacher’s lounge and said he had done nothing about filing his Income Tax! We had this wonderful older woman who was in the Math department, Mrs. Foster, she took care of Pat’s tax return for him. Those were the kinds of things that were just typical Pat. He just couldn’t be bothered with stuff like that.”
Pat Conroy’s second year of teaching took him to a two room schoolhouse on remote Daufuskie Island in South Carolina, not far from Hilton Head, where a lone signpost alongside a dirt road, the main thoroughfare, pointed in just two directions: school and church.
While the teacher in the other room literally whipped her students into submission, Conroy taught English, math, history and spelling to culturally isolated African-American youngsters with an enthusiastic, all-encompassing approach. He led kids, most of which had never left the island, on field trips to far off places like the nation’s capitol, taught them to swim, achieved remarkable results. Former Daufuskie student turned author Sallie Ann Robinson told Open Road Media how she, “Got up every morning just wanting to go to school because this man was there with all this fun stuff to offer. Wanted us to have more. He wanted us to realize that there was a life outside of Daufuskie. Pat taught me… you can do anything you want if you want it badly.”
Conroy returned to Daufuskie Island to teach the following fall and was immediately fired. Nancy Hoffmann remembers that day, “On the Sunday that Pat got the call from the Superintendent that he was fired, he came to Gene Norris’ home that evening where Millen Ellis (another member of the English department) and I were having dinner as we often did on Sunday evenings. That’s when Pat told us what had happened. I, of course, assured him we would take every action possible to support him.”
At that juncture former Oak Ridge mayor Ray Combs entered the picture, “I knew Pat when I was a student at Beaufort High School. He was two years ahead of me, he played basketball. We both went off to college and then back to Beaufort to teach. When he left to go to Daufuskie I took his place at Beaufort High School.
“Nancy [Hoffmann] was president of the Beaufort County Teacher’s Association in 1970. She asked me to be the chairman of a committee nobody had ever heard of but she felt they needed, what’s called a Professional Rights and Responsibilities Committee. So I said, ‘Sure’ because she said we weren’t really going to do anything right away. Well, then Pat got fired. She told him, ‘You need to go see Ray because he’s chairman of this committee.’
“So Pat came to the house and we talked and we got involved with him.” Ray decided to investigate further, “To make a longer story short, Nancy and I and another principal formed our own little ad-hoc committee to go to Daufuskie to investigate whether Pat should have been fired or not. And we went in his boat. As soon as we stepped into the boat we realized that some special consideration needed to be given to somebody who was traveling these waters to teach at Daufuskie. The conclusion was, even if there were some procedural errors, he shouldn’t have been fired, maybe transferred to another school. We prepared a formal letter to the school board.” A hearing was convened to rule on Conroy’s dismissal, “I was not very popular with the school administration, they saw this as a political move. The superintendent called me into his office, took me out of school, threatened to fire me if I testified, told me how wrong I was. That really ticked me off so I went ahead and testified.” The firing was upheld.
Ray Combs recalls, “Pat, at the time, had no job, he had a family. He’d married Barbara who was the widow of a Marine pilot who was killed in Vietnam. She had three kids. Pat was broke while he was writing the book The Water is Wide.”
A collection was taken up to buy groceries for the family, Combs said, adding, “Those kids were pretty hungry.”
Conroy’s fortunes were reversed when The Water is Wide, a memoir about his time as a teacher on Daufuskie Island, became a critical and commercial hit in 1972. Prior to that, Pat had self-published his first book, The Boo, a collection of anecdotes about Lt. Colonel Thomas “The Boo” Courvoisie, Commandant of Cadets at The Citadel. It was not an altogether flattering portrait of military cadet life.
Which brings us to another local connection, veteran journalist Jeri Rowe, who explains, “I moved to Charleston in 1968 and Dad took over from The Boo because of the crap that was happening at The Citadel, I can’t remember what it was — I was really young but I believe it had something to do with favoritism. My dad was brought down to kind of straighten it out, which he did.
“See, my brother graduated from The Citadel in ’67 with Pat Conroy. They knew one another. Two years later, my brother was killed in a car accident while serving in the Army in Germany. I was 6. I knew Conroy had gone to The Citadel but I didn’t make the connection he had with my brother until much later. “After I read Prince of Tides I started back-reading all of his stuff. I was reading his first book, The Boo, I used to remember the page number where he mentions my brother. It was like a lightning bolt BOOM hit me. I literally started shaking. [In my family] my brother’s death was never talked about. It was like the elephant in the room. We had a shrine in our house, pictures of my brother Nat. He was the first-born son, named after my father, you know, all of that. Never talked about. I called [my parents] on the phone and said, ‘Let me read you this.’ I read it to them over the phone and there was silence for 10 seconds. My dad didn’t say a word and my mom, she was on the phone, she goes, ‘Thank you for telling us that, we’re looking forward to seeing you come home.’ It was a classic Southern thing, you don’t talk about the unpleasantries in your life.”
Then came a chance meeting with Pat Conroy for Jeri Rowe in 1988, “I’d just turned 25. He was signing books in the Harvard Coop in Cambridge and… I really thought he would be kind of stuck up. I mean, Prince of Tides just spoke to me, like good books do. I grew up two blocks from Ashley River, I went crabbin’ in pluff mud, I had worked on a shrimp boat, all that. And when I met Conroy, it was before work. I was working for a daily newspaper outside Boston, and I had to cover some bullshit night meeting, as you do when you’re a young journalist.
“I remember it was cold, and all these people lined up are in furs, the upper crust of Boston, all these blue bloods. And then there’s me. I was nervous. Conroy was behind a table wearing a powder blue Oxford shirt open at the neck. And he’s all red-faced like he’d been drinking too much, I expected him to be really haughty. But when I got there, this smile spread across his face, and he sticks his hand in my face. He had these fingers that were like cigars, and says, ‘Pat Conroy, glad to meet you.’ I’m nervous, ‘I love your books because they remind me of the South.’ He said, ‘Where’d you grow up?’ I said, ‘Charleston. Matter of fact, you graduated with my brother.’ And he goes, ‘Who was your brother?’ I told him and that’s when everything stopped. I mean, it was frozen. His face changed. “He started talking about my brother and he stopped in mid-sentence, stood up, grabbed the lapels of my London Fog coat and he shook me. He goes, ‘You’re Sgt. Major Rowe’s son.’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I am.’ ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I’m a journalist’ He goes, ‘What the hell?’ And that’s when he invited me for beers with another Southerner, Doug Marlette who was in town attending Nieman at Harvard. He said, ‘Why don’t you come with us?’ I go, ‘No, I have to work, I gotta get back.’ We just started talking and the line was getting longer and longer. After I left, I was buzzing, I was just floating.”
An appearance before the High Point Literary League in 1992 gave Jeri the opportunity to reconnect when he interviewed Pat Conroy by phone for the Greensboro News & Record. “He said, ‘I remember you, you’re Sgt. Major Rowe’s son!’ Usually those kind of interviews take 30 or 40 minutes but he was cooking, we literally talked for an hour and 45 minutes.” During that discussion Jeri read back this paragraph from The Prince of Tides, the last line of which had always stuck with him: “There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood. I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater. My soul grazes like a lamb on the beauty of indrawn tides.”
“That’s my most favorite line I ever wrote,” Conroy replied. “It’s hard to express how good you feel about landscapes and what you feel about land and a region. It’s hard to come up with that … in words. But when I hit that [last] line and hit those phrases, I said, ‘OK, you’re getting’ it, son.’ And Pat Conroy told me, he said, ‘Tell your dad I said hello, I have a lot of respect for him.’ And I told dad that, I said, ‘Pat Conroy likes you’ and he goes, ‘Oh really? Well, that’s good.’ And that’s all my father said.”
I, myself, have the most tenuous of connections to the great author. In 1991, I was working as a designer for the poster and ad campaign for the motion picture The Prince of Tides, with a script written by Pat Conroy and Becky Johnston, filmed in Beaufort, SC. For a couple of weeks, every evening at 6:00 sharp, I would get a package from the film’s producer, director and star Barbra Streisand containing photos taken during the filming with instructions as to how she’d like to see them coupled. It fell on me to create fully-realized comps that looked like finished, printed posters at 1/3 size. (This was before Photoshop.) She needed to see everything at 9:00 the next morning. Streisand was very exacting in her directions, right down to the color of the logo, Pantone 155. At first glance, I didn’t think her suggestions were going to work until I started mocking up the scenes the way she outlined and discovered the results were quite spectacular.
At her meeting with the head of marketing at Tri-Star Pictures that first morning Streisand blew her top, “I asked for that logo in 155!” When the marketing guy placed a Pantone 155 color chip next to the logo, proving it was a match, she snapped, “Well, that’s not what I want.” After the meeting she called the head of the studio and had the marketing guy fired. For being right. The Prince of Tides went on to huge box office and seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture.
Donald Patrick “Pat” Conroy passed away on March 4, 2016 of pancreatic cancer, he was 70 years old. Nancy Hoffmann recalls, “In 2011, when I first ran for City Council, Pat was kind enough at my request to personally autograph 50 copies of his My Reading Life with this message, ‘Thank you for helping my friend Nancy Hoffmannn.’ I gave them as gifts to the people who had helped me most with my campaign.
“The last time I had really seen Pat was at the memorial service for our mutual friend Gene Norris, who was Pat’s mentor almost a father like figure to Pat. [In 2004] Gene’s funeral was in Newberry, South Carolina, which is where he lived, but there was a huge memorial service for him in Beaufort at St. Helena’s, the Episcopal church that Gene attended all those years he was in Beaufort. Pat did not speak at the service but Pat spoke at length at the dinner in the Parish House, at the meal we had afterwards. My husband Jack and I sat at the table right beside Pat and Cassandra. And, as usual, he waxed forth quite eloquently.
“As I have thought about those Beaufort days, a recurring idea comes to mind which I am constantly playing with. If I ever write my life story, it will be focused around this theme, ‘we are inspired and transformed by the people we love and the places we love.’ I think Pat would have agreed. We both loved Beaufort, and we both had friends there whom we loved very much.”
A posthumous Pat Conroy collection was released on Oct. 25, A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, culled from the author’s letters, interviews, and magazine articles. The Washington Post called it, “A victory lap for the legion of readers who bought his books and stood in line to get them signed.” He also left behind almost 200 pages of what would have been a coming-of-age novel set during the Vietnam War called The Storms of Aquarius that may one day be added to what the author called his “literary acreage.”
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Billy Ingram lives in Greensboro, he’s the creator of TVparty.com and a writer for O.Henry magazine and YES! Weekly. His latest book Hamburger(squared) is a collection of true stories mostly about Greensboro. He’s currently working on a memoir of his decade spent as a key member of the team that history has dubbed, ‘the New York Yankees of motion picture advertising.’