Pat Conroy, who died March 5 at age 70, based most of his novels on actual experience and real people. “Write what you know” was a maxim he stood by for most of his writing life.
Perhaps the most famous of these “real” people was his father, Col. Donald Conroy. The elder Conroy showed up as various characters throughout his son’s books, and though none of the depictions are thinly-veiled, some are more sympathetic than others.
“I see you’ve made me a shrimp boat captain in this one,” said Col. Conroy upon the release of Pat’s epic novel, “Prince of Tides.”
He was a judge in “Beach Music,” a fighter pilot in the titular novel “The Great Santini,” and a minor presence in “The Lords of Discipline.”
Conroy once told a reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer that he longed to “escape the persona of the ‘Southern Writer.’ ”
Though he wrote about places as diverse as New York, Rome and San Francisco, his attempts at escaping the Southern landscape mostly failed. In fact, his final two fiction novels — “Beach Music” and “South of Broad” — saw him fully embrace the characters and experiences that had long haunted, if not defined him.
Beaufort itself was a major character in his novels, though it, too, had names such as Waterford and Colleton.
In Conroy’s nonfiction memoirs — “The Boo,” “The Water is Wide,” “My Losing Season” and The Death of Santini — he mostly forgoes the idea of changing names to protect the innocent.
Bernie Schein, for example, is himself in “The Water is Wide,” and Conroy writes that Schein “could talk a Baptist into burning a Bible.” Appearing as Sammy Weitzberger in “The Great Santini,” he is described in online guides to the book as “Ben’s Jewish friend who is obsessed with having sex with women despite his many failed attempts.”
An exception to the naming rule is former Beaufort County School Superintendent Dr. Walter Trammell, whose campaign to oust Conroy from his teaching job on Daufuskie Island led to Conroy’s renaming him Dr. Piedmont. That name was changed to protect the guilty.
We are also introduced to “Ethel” in “The Water is Wide.” She’s one of a handful of eagerly precocious girls in Conroy’s class on Daufuskie (called Yamacraw in the book). Ethel — real name Sallie Ann Robinson — would turn up years later with her own cookbook and her own career as a chef.
Certain themes — the inescapability of the past, finding humor in tragedy, the binds of dysfunctional families — resonate through all of Conroy’s works. So do certain characters and seminal life events that are recalled in various ways in various fictional settings.
Bill Dufford was Conroy’s principal at Beaufort High. In fiction he appeared as the caring, progressive school principal Mr. John Dacus in “The Great Santini.”
Dufford moved on to other jobs in education in South Carolina but came back to a Beaufort High reunion in recent years. He had given Conroy a job cutting grass around school property and had been there in the stands to comfort Conroy and others when classmate Randy Randel died on the pitcher’s mound during a varsity game. Conroy told The Sumter Item in 1989 that Dufford told him “exactly what a Marine kid needed to hear. It was done with such gentleness and tenderness that I’ll never forget it.”
Randel’s parents, Morgan and Julia, also make appearances in “The Water is Wide” and “The Death of Santini,” as they became surrogate family members for Conroy in ensuing years.
Hardly any published interview with Conroy doesn’t mention Gene Norris, Conroy’s high school English teacher at Beaufort High. Though Norris passed away last decade, he lives on as Ogden Loring, a bald, bespectacled teacher offering encouragement to Ben Meechum in “The Great Santini.” He is given an accurate sketch in “The Water is Wide,” and characters drive across the “J. Eugene Norris Bridge” in “Beach Music.”
“The Great Santini” gave us multitudes more identifiable characters.
In several descriptive passages, Conroy captures the essence of Wilson “Tootie Fruitie” Burke, Beaufort’s longtime unpaid traffic enforcer and parade route leader. Those who knew him before his death will easily understand Conroy’s depiction of him as “Mr. Fruit,” of whom he writes “there was a time when a new deputy tried to teach Mr. Fruit about the difference between a red and a green light, but Mr. Fruit had resisted all efforts to reorder what he had been doing perfectly well for many years. He had not only monitored the comings and goings of the town, his presence softened the ingrained evil that flourished along the invisible margins of the town’s consciousness. Any community can be judged in its humanity or corruption by how it manages to accommodate the Mr. Fruits of the world. Colleton simply adjusted itself to Mr. Fruit’s harmonies and ordinations. He did whatever he felt was needed, and he did it with style.”
Longtime Beaufort High football coach Frank Smalls also received a relatively accurate description in Santini. The chain-smoking, RC Cola-drinking coach was pressed into duty coaching basketball in the book, but a similar character based on Smalls also shows up in “The Prince of Tides” and “Beach Music.”
Rowland Washington, now the owner of the catering company We Island Gumbo ’N Tings was the first student to integrate Beaufort High School in the 1964-65 school year. This watershed event also must have made an impression on Conroy, as Washington and his experience was recalled in “The Great Santini” through the eyes of “Roland Washington.” A reasonable facsimile appeared again in “The Prince of Tides,” this time named “Benji Washington.”
Max Rusoff, a character in “Beach Music” central to the backstory, was born in 1902 and later owned and operated a department store in downtown Waterford. This can at least partially be seen as a shadow of the real Max Lipsitz, who opened Lipsitz Department Store (initially a dry-goods grocery) in 1902, the same year as the fictional Rusoff’s birth.
Speaking of downtown merchants, there is also a great scene in “The Great Santini” that takes place at the fictional “Hobie’s Cafe,” based on the now-closed Harry’s Restaurant on Bay Street.
The famed Booth of Knowledge, where local prominent citizens gathered for decades to discuss issues and enlighten each other on often mundane topics, received star treatment. Only the professions of the participants in the book — doctor, postman, attorney, barber, auto store owner — are mentioned. These are definite characterizations of real people, and Sheriff J.E. McTeer was a regular at the breakfast spot during the early 1960’s when the book takes place.
A non-human character — also a regular in the Beaufort River in the 1960’s — was Carolina Snowball. She was an albino dolphin who drew the attention (and nets) of some Florida aquatic museum owners and brought a change in the law in South Carolina regarding the capture of mammals. In “The Prince of Tides” she was named Carolina Snow, and she was a porpoise. In “Beach Music,” she was a dolphin named Snowbird. In that adaptation she was captured and taken to Florida but rescued and set free by the book’s main character. Sadly, the former is a true fact and the latter is pure fiction.
It’s the creative license given to fictional writing that allowed Conroy to write about so many real people and real experiences while changing a few details.
This list is certainly not exhaustive or complete. His family, presumably, knew when he was writing about them. Others who grew up with Conroy or became his friends in adulthood can also probably guess the character that most resembles them.
Fictional settings aside, Beaufort and its people left a mark on Pat Conroy. Thank God the reverse is also bountifully true.
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.