Those who wear the rings traveled to Beaufort by car, plane and a biodiesel-fueled bus.
Author Pat Conroy invited The Citadel's class of 2001 to his funeral during a stirring commencement speech almost 15 years ago. All they need for entry, Conroy said then, is to show the church usher the date on their class rings and say "I wear the ring."
The sentence is “the best line I have ever written and the best English sentence I am capable of writing,” Conroy told the graduating cadets of the line from his 1980 book “Lords of Discipline.” Conroy was amused to be behind the podium after so riling the military institution through his novels, saying he long thought Saddam Hussein and Jane Fonda had a better chance to deliver the address.
Members of the 2001 class remembered the speech when word spread of Conroy’s cancer diagnosis in February. After Conroy’s death last week, they had three days to plan a trip to Beaufort.
They arrived in gray suits and sunglasses and waited outside the church in the sunshine Tuesday. Some are balding and some already bald.
The group connected on Facebook this week.
Joe Renwick, co-owner of Midlands Biofuels, offered his company’s small bus from Columbia. He uses the bus as a promotional and educational tool for traveling to schools and for collecting used vegetable oil to convert to fuel.
“What I remember most about his speech was addressing us as if we are peers of his, simply because we all went to the same school that he did,” Renwick said Monday. “And that’s the most awesome thing about The Citadel.”
Craig Thompson planned to drive down from New Jersey but later booked a flight. Marc Pittman organized a carpool from Clemson.
William Irwin doesn’t use social media but answered a call from a New York area code Monday, thinking it was business. Pat Conroy died, the caller said, we have to be at the funeral. Irwin drove from Hanahan.
Brian Smith drove from Walterboro, which isn’t unusual. He regularly drives for Mass at St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton. St. Gregory Monsignor Ron Cellini gave the homily at Conroy’s funeral Tuesday.
Lady’s Island resident Craig Norris reserved space for 50 at Q on Bay for a class gathering following the funeral. The group later posed for pictures in Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.
“There’s a lot of sacrifices being made to do this, and it’s a funeral of a guy who most of us have just shaken hands with or had that experience for 15 minutes of our senior year,“ Norris said. “And we all feel like we know him so well.”
In 1979, the year most of y’all were born, I was finishing up “The Lords of Discipline,” and I tried to think of a line or words that would sum up better than anything how I felt and how other people feel about this college. I wanted it to be something ringing and affirmative, something true, something to be true for every person who has ever gone through the long gray line. I came up with this line, "I wear the ring."
Pat Conroy, during his 2001 commencement speech at The Citadel
The ring teems with symbols of The Citadel’s military history. The “Star of the West” recognizes the time a group of Citadel cadets fired on a Union supply ship in January 1861.
And the ring’s wearers take their duty seriously. Norris removed his for the first time in years during a recent doctor’s appointment and warned the physician of what he might find underneath.
Some use the rings to cover weddings bands, symbolically protecting marriages, Norris said.
When Norris arrived for his first year at Citadel, his dad prepaid for his ring in full. Norris kept the receipt under his cap for four years.
Norris is one of three class chairmen and the only 2001 graduate in the area.
The class of more than 300 already knows loss.
Andrew Mazur, a 24-year-old Greenville County Sheriff's deputy, was shot and killed trying to make an arrest in 2003.
Stephen Lee died after being swept out to sea while kayaking off of Seabrook Island.
U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Shane Childers was killed in Iraq in 2003, believed to have been the first American service member killed in the war. He graduated The Citadel in 2001 through a program producing Marine officers.
Dan Thomas Malcom, also a first lieutenant and 2001 graduate, was killed in Fallujah in 2004.
Conroy’s death feels like another loss for the class, Norris said, even though he graduated almost 35 years earlier.
He knew Conroy through his books, the speech in McAlister Field House and pleasantries at Lady’s Island Publix.
Norris’ wife didn’t understand why her husband was so shaken by Conroy’s death until Sunday night. Norris handed her an iPad with the 2001 commencement speech ready to play.
“And I hope as many of you will come as you possibly can, because I want you to know how swift time is, and there is nothing as swift...” Conroy said as he began to close his speech. “A heartbeat, an eye blink —this is the way life is.”
“It is the only great surprise in life.”
Pat Conroy’s 2001 address
So I’m going to tell you how to get to my funeral. You walk up. . . You find the usher waiting outside, and here’s your ticket. . . You put up your Citadel ring. Let them check for the 2001, and each one of you, I want you to say this before you enter the church at which I’m going to be buried. You tell them, "I wear the ring."
Pat Conroy, in closing his 2001 commencement speech at The Citadel