“Man wonders but God decides when to kill the Prince of Tides.”
Pat Conroy will forever be a beloved friend and member of the Keyserling family.
He delivered our father’s eulogy and was the principal speaker at our mother’s memorial service. Dad introduced Pat to his first wife and delivered their first child. I took photos of Pat teaching on Daufuskie, some of which illustrated “The Water is Wide.”
Mother and Pat had a distinctive bond. Perhaps it is because they both arrived in Beaufort as orphans seeking to find their place in Beaufort.
For years, Mother, a liberal Jewish intellectual from New York City, felt isolated and out of place in Beaufort, always seeking like-minded, deeper thinkers. Alienated from his father, Pat arrived in Beaufort as a military brat with no friends but hoping to make them.
Pat made friends very quickly through school and the many mentors who adopted him. He became a star athlete, president of the student body and “most congenial.”
It took Mother much longer, largely due to the times. It took years to find the few who would join her promotion of classical music and art. They did not read The New York Times every day. But she kept reaching out for inspiration, thoughtful conversations and kindred spirits, many of whom she finally found and cherished. Those who knew her understand that my mother, Harriet Keyserling, finally broke barriers and became a great political leader.
During my one year at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, I befriended Tim Belk, the English professor, reunited with my childhood friend Bernie Schein, and hung out with them and their friends. That included Pat Conroy. All of them were teaching in Beaufort schools.
Mother hosted frequent dinners for us that went late into the night with subjects ranging from the state of the world and foreign and domestic politics to classical music, literature and art. The gatherings continued on a regular basis until the group dispersed to faraway places only later to come “home.”
‘Let it rip’
Mother, Dad and Pat got to know each other intimately, sharing stories as only kindred spirits can.
Dad talked to Pat about the trials of a young doctor landing with the First Marine Division at Guadalcanal that gave Pat insights into his own father and the military. During the eulogy, Pat surprised many as he recognized Dad as a war hero, since this was not something my dad spoke of even to his own children.
After Pat left Daufuskie Island, the Jewish mother set up my then-vacant bedroom in our house along Battery Creek. It was just down the creek from where Pat and Sandra King Conroy have been living. It was a quiet place to write “The Water is Wide.” Mother joined others who typed the manuscript after Pat’s agent rejected the document scribbled out in longhand.
Upon retiring from the S.C. House of Representatives, Mother struggled to write her book “Against the Tide: One Woman’s Political Struggle.” Pat encouraged her to “let it rip; tell it like it was,” which gave her the confidence to finish what has become a primer for political science students like “The Water is Wide” is for education students.
During the past 24 hours, it dawned on me that Pat wrote his first and last books sopping up the views across the pristine marshes of Battery Creek. And Mother wrote her book inspired by that same creek several years before we lost her.
I’ll never forget the dinner party where Mother set up a surprise first meeting between Pat and Robert Duvall at her home when Duvall was filming “The Great Santini” here in Beaufort.
Duvall was living 24/7 in the personage of the “Great Santini,” Pat’s father, U.S. Marine Corps Col. Don Conroy. When they met, Pat said, “Oh my God, you are the Great Santini, and I hate every bone in your body.”
Taken aback, Duvall counterattacked, as would Don Conroy. The table went quiet. No one knew what to do other than to find a place to take cover under the table. After a few harsh words, the two quieted and developed a mutual respect.
Nor will I forget the strong attachment between Pat Conroy and my parents, Harriet and Dr. Herbert Keyserling, who served as anchors for Pat when he was venturing rough seas and from whose friendship we have all felt great joy. And, as Pat would often say, “great love.”
Now these extraordinary people, who loved life and each other, can be found like the tides of our days — coming close and then receding, only to return again and again.
That is the flow of life in these parts, which many of our countrymen will never know or appreciate. But that is how we few, we lucky, will always have them: in the coastal marshes, under the Spanish moss and in the friendships that bind us together as long as we who are left behind revere this special place we all call home.
Editor’s note: Billy Keyserling is mayor of Beaufort. We asked him to reflect after the death of his longtime friend, Pat Conroy.