How a Lowcountry author got by with a little help from his friends

August 29, 2009 

Best friends in the late 1960s, from left, Pat Conroy, George Garbade and Bernie Schein on the Chechessee River.


Picture a man squinting into a paragraph that's blacked out on a sheet full of type.

The paper almost smokes, it's held so close to a hot light bulb.

It could easily be smoking, too, from the stuff that wasn't blacked out: A highly-decorated Marine fighter pilot secretly beating his beautiful wife and their seven children unmercifully.

But Bernie Schein wanted to see what he wasn't supposed to see.

He was holding to the light an early manuscript of "The Great Santini" by his best friend, Pat Conroy.

"I'm always interested in what is not said," Schein told me last week in the living room of his Beaufort home. "I only want to read what you don't want me to know. The rest of it is bull


Schein used that philosophy to pull poetry from middle school students during more than 30 years in the classroom at the private Paideia School in Atlanta. He tells the secret in his own book released last year: "If Holden Caufield Were In My Classroom."

Conroy has used the same approach to give his novels a strength equal to their sensuous love affair with "the grand and swashbuckling salt marshes" of his Lowcountry home.

Schein has given a first read to all of Conroy's books, from "The Great Santini" to the brand new "South of Broad" set in Charleston and sitting today at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list.

"I call Pat the rebel without a pause," Schein says, launching his trademark, wild laugh. He endlessly teases his friend, even claiming to have written all of Conroy's books.

"My greatest contribution to American literature is that I taught Pat to cuss, to use foul language," Schein said. "It unleashed the part of him that could raise a little hell."

Schein appears as the character Sammy Wertzberger in "The Great Santini."

Now in their early 60s, the old high school friends enjoy long rides through the Lowcountry searching for the most beautiful place. They swap outlandish tales on Schein's front porch. Martha Schein feeds a bevy of lazy cats, and her husband's laughter bounces off the Salvation Army building across the street.

Conroy told me last week between book-signing engagements: "Bernie did a lot for me. Bernie's personality was so outrageous. He gave me an example of what it was like to be free-spirited, to say anything, to think anything."

'Write about that guy'

Young Pat Conroy showed up at Beaufort High School in 1961. Laurel Bay's military housing was his 23rd address in 15 years. He had a fresh wound on his forehead from an iced tea glass hurled by his father, the cocksure Col. Don Conroy who called himself "The Great Santini." But Conroy told me he really wished he'd had a sign on his head that said, "Military brat. I don't know a soul."

Conroy said, "Growing up in the Southern swamps like I did, I wanted a home. I just did. People would say 'where are you from' and I never knew what to say to them."

He found it in Beaufort, the only home Schein had ever known. Schein's grandfather came here from Russia to escape religious persecution. He was a peddler until he could open a store near today's Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. He was murdered in the store, and Schein's father, Morris, moved into Beaufort, where he ran a corner grocery. Schein's mother, Sadie, was a gifted pianist and bridge player. They took great pride when their son, Bernie, who never excelled at school and actually hated it, earned a master's degree from Harvard.

"When I came to Beaufort High School, I was shy as an oyster," Conroy said.

Schein was the first person in Conroy's high school career who ever invited him to a party.

"And anybody who invites Conroy to a party during that childhood becomes a hero for all time," Conroy said.

They met in a pickup basketball game. Conroy could dribble and pass circles around the Beaufort boys. Shein had a silky shot.

"Suddenly I found the ball coming my way like the moon," Schein said.

Soon, the lonely military brat felt Beaufort had given him the moon. He had a number of surrogate families -- the Scheins, Keyserlings, Randels, Harpers, Hryharrows.

His teachers, and principal Bill Dufford, were huge influences.

"I had the murderer's row of English teachers," Conroy said. "Gene Norris, Ann Head Morse, Millen Ellis and Mickey Doggette."

Morse clashed with his father. "She hated Dad and he returned fire with her," Conroy said. "It was a clash of titans when those two locked horns." She also was a novelist. Her 1967 novel on teen pregnancy, "Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones," was made into a TV movie starting Desi Arnez Jr. She told Conroy this about his father: "You need to write about that guy."

Conroy puts a rose on her grave with each new book.

'Fewer fights'

After college, Conroy and Schein both ended up teaching in Beaufort County. They ran with a group of tight friends who were like family. George Garbade went on to business success, Mike Jones became a minister, and Tim Belk was a University of South Carolina Beaufort English professor who now plays in San Francisco piano bars. Mayor Billy Keyserling was part of it when he wasn't off at college.

"I'm going to write about those years someday because I look back at those being some of the happiest years of my life," Conroy said.

They went to Europe together, where Conroy toured the Dachau concentration camp.

"Pat has always loved suffering," Schein said. "Pain makes him feel at home."

Conroy and Schein were against the Vietnam War and zealots for civil rights. Schein turned down the teaching job on Daufuskie Island that Conroy turned into "The Water is Wide" and the movie from that book, "Conrack." As principal at Port Royal Elementary School, Schein invited Conroy and his black students to join a parade and stay with white folks in town. It was radical for the time.

Conroy's fiery personality helped get him fired on Daufuskie. He came back to Beaufort, unemployed and married with young children. He spent this "desperate time" writing stuff most people did not want to know about the pathetic state of public education of African-Americans on the sea islands.

"He's the bravest man I've ever known," Schein said, "and he suffers because of it."

Conroy said last week, "When I was trying to figure out my life and why I have gotten into so many fights with the school board, The Citadel and with my family, suddenly it occurred to me. I was raised by a warrior.

"I'm living life exactly as I was trained to live it. What I'm trying to do in the latter part of my life is get into fewer fights."

He moved back home for good in 1993, and lives on Fripp Island with his third wife, novelist Cassandra King. Conroy is working on another book about his father. He says he owes it to him because he changed after reading "The Great Santini."

"It's about his death," Conroy said, "but mostly about his change."

And he's contracted to write a novel set in Atlanta, where he and Schein lived as adults, where they starred in men's-league basketball, where Conroy's children went to Schein's school, and where Conroy was amazed by the stories Schein's students wrote.

They wrote the stuff teachers might black out.

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