A mentor to last a lifetime

Published author Sallie Ann Robinson shares accomplishments with Pat Conroy - the teacher who inspired her 40 years ago

August 15, 2011 

  • "An Evening with Henry Chambers, Pat Conroy and Cassandra King" will be Thursday at the Beaufort Boys & Girls Club. Tickets are $100 a person. Space is limited. Corporate sponsors with special recognition tables for 10 are available for $1,500.

    Details: Liz Vallino, 843-379-5430, lvallino@bgclowcountry.org

Sallie Ann Robinson first went to Washington, D.C., on a field trip. A passionate young teacher had taken her class from their two-room Daufuskie Island schoolhouse and into a world few of them had even heard about.

The second time she went to the nation's capital she served as an ambassador of Gullah culture at the Smithsonian Institute. When she found out she'd been invited to the museum last year, she immediately emailed the teacher who she had known for about 40 years at that point.

"I had a great moment in my life when she emailed to say she went back to Washington, D.C.," said that teacher, Pat Conroy, who immortalized his year at the Daufuskie school in his novel "The Water is Wide."

Robinson and Conroy have kept in touch since their year together. Conroy went on to become a best-selling novelist while Robinson has made a name for herself in two cookbooks that draw on her Gullah roots.

They meet again at the Beaufort Boys & Girls Club on Thursday when Conroy and his wife, Cassandra King, will have a reading room dedicated in their name.

Former Beaufort Mayor Henry Chambers also will have a center catering to teenagers named after him.

Robinson is speaking at the ceremony to honor the man who's served as an inspiration. Boys & Girls clubs leaders say the night is about relationships like the one between Conroy and Robinson, how two seemingly different people can establish a lifelong friendship.

Conroy came to the largely poor community on the remote island at age 23 in 1969 to teach grades 5 through 8. He only spent a year at the school before differences with the administration put him out of the job. But during his time there he took students off the island to experience their first Halloween in Beaufort. He introduced them to new music, having them debate their favorite classical composer.

Robinson remembers growing up on Daufuskie with fondness but also with the knowledge that life wasn't easy on the isolated island. She didn't know much of mainland life at the time, but Conroy came to open his students' eyes to the outside world.

"When he came into our lives he wanted to give us as much as he could as a teacher," she said. "He told us that one day we'd have to go to the mainland. He was introducing us to the other side."

Conroy continued to serve as an inspiration as his writing career flourished. Robinson eventually moved off the island to Savannah and became a nurse. But she always kept in touch, letting her one-time teacher know the joys and sorrows of her life. He offered encouragement when she wanted to publish her own story. She told it in her first cookbook in 2003, "Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way," a mix of childhood memories and down home recipes. Conroy wrote the forward.

"I know the full measure of struggle that she endured in her quest to lift herself out of a life of great hardship," he wrote. "That Sallie Ann Robinson is the author of a published book is a bright miracle that adds grandeur and hope to the American story we are all telling."

A highlight of Conroy's year as a teacher came when he took his 18 students to Washington, D.C., over Easter break. He remembers how they clung to him "like barnacles" as they walked by the Washington Monument. He remembers their wide-eyed glances at the lifelike elephant that towered above them in the Smithsonian. Many of the students told him that the visit to the museum was their favorite part of the trip. The fact that one of them returned there not as a visitor but as an invitee was something he never figured could happen.

As he always does, he promptly returned Robinson's email when she told him of her trip.

"He told me how proud he was," Robinson recalls. "That meant a lot to me.

"You remember some people, and you forget others. But there are some who will never leave your memory because of how they inspired you. He was one of a few people who did that for me."

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