Let me tell you about the Pat Conroy I knew.
We were not friends. But I don’t think he realized that. From our first conversation, he acted like I was at the very least a Somewhat Great Santini.
And I’m not.
But I’m not sure the writer of novels that sold millions of copies and made dashing movies ever discovered this before he passed away Friday at his creekside home in Beaufort.
His dearest friends and family were there with Pat and his classy wife, Cassandra King, when he passed on across the water. This group had only a month to digest this gut-punch from pancreatic cancer.
Already, one thing stands clear: Conroy thought a lot of us were Somewhat Great Santinis.
You don’t have to watch a presidential “debate” to see that the world needs more of that.
My beautiful bride and I were invited to the Conroy home shortly before Christmas in 2012. What we found tells all you need to know about Pat Conroy.
It was a book-signing drop-in. The dining room table was filled with crumpets and seasonal signs of wonder. Looking over a living room of polite nibblers was an actual Great Santini — a Jonathan Green original painting blaring out the jazzy, pizazzy Lowcountry that Green and Conroy have tried to get us all to hear and see.
This was not a book-signing for Conroy. Or Cassandra, who also writes popular novels on the national stage.
It was for Maggie Schein. It was for the original version of her collection of fables, “Lost Cantos of the Ouroboros Caves.”
Conroy was there when Maggie was born to Bernie and Martha Schein. Bernie is a Beaufort native who has been Conroy’s friend since the Marine “dependent” arrived at Beaufort High School, a junior still looking for a place to call home.
Bernie is a retired educator who wrote a book that Pat was plugging, “Famous All Over Town.” Bernie will sit on his front porch and tell anyone within earshot — which for Bernie with a bourbon in his hand covers everything from the Beaufort County Courthouse to Parris Island — that it is actually Bernie who writes Pat Conroy’s books.
We found humor behind the serious problems on Conroy’s pages.
This is the Bernie who told Pat that the president was so thrilled with his latest best-seller that he wanted Pat to come to the White House. Pat called the White House and the answer he got was: “Who are you?”
That helps explain why Pat evaded the calls of Barbra Streisand, who wanted to film his novel, “Prince of Tides.” He thought she was Bernie. And when she finally got Conroy on the phone, he said, “Prove to me you’re Barbra Steisand: Sing!”
Conroy, you may have heard, knew a thing or two about a rough childhood. Maybe that’s why he wanted to reach out to help Maggie, poor daughter of Bernie.
But I came to discover, and we all have in recent years, that this was the Conroy way. He gave and gave and gave of himself to others.
He and Cassandra gave us free reign to ogle at their wall-hangings. His friend Doug Marlette’s editorial cartoon of the real Great Santini arriving in heaven. A signed photograph of the real Great Santini posing with Robert Duvall, who played Col. Don Conroy, Pat’s abusive father, in the movie. This despite the fact that Pat once told his dad they found the perfect person to play him in the movie: Liberace.
We saw all of the colonel’s medals in a frame — signs of heroism the Great Santini never bothered to tell anyone about.
A framed needlepoint read:
Because the Water is Wide,
The Great Santini took
The Lords of Discipline
To visit the Prince of Tides
And Listen to Beach Music.
Pat - Julian 1972 -
We discovered that Conroy has so many books they were in stacks that filled a room just like library stacks. And Bernie was holding forth in that room, far enough away to keep from embarrassing his daughter, he said.
I snapped a picture of Conroy’s writing desk, also filled with books. It’s where Conroy wrote his novels in longhand.
But it is also where he wrote tens of thousands, or so it seems, of blurbs for the books of others, especially the unkown Southerners. It’s probably where he wrote the essays found on his blog that lavish praise as only he could, not on himself but on others.
Maybe that’s where he came up with all the introductions and forewords for others. They, alone, could fill a thick volume.
Meanwhile, Maggie Schein and her godfather, Pat Conroy, were signing away. Yes, Pat had a long line. He was signing his foreword. Maggie would sign next to him and greet each person like Pat always did, doting over them as if they were delivering checks for $1 million. He believed in Maggie’s unusual book with all his heart. And, as it turned out, that was a mighty big heart.
It was big enough for Pat Conroy to write this in Maggie’s book: “To David Lauderdale, For the love of words and story of the Lowcountry — you’re the writer of my Beaufort life.”
That is all you need to know about Conroy.
He helped others.
He made others feel like the Great Santini.
When he didn’t have to.
When he had nothing to gain from it.
When it was a simple act of kindness.
That’s the Pat Conroy I knew.
A funeral mass for Pat Conroy will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, 70 Lady’s Island Drive, on Lady’s Island.
Interment will be private.
The family will receive friends from 5 to 7 p.m. on Monday at Anderson Funeral Home, 611 Robert Smalls Parkway in Beaufort.
Anderson Funeral Home is handling arrangements.