Pat Conroy’s new chapter in Beaufort opens with a dead battery in a cemetery.
Jonathan Haupt found himself by the grave of his friend, asking aloud in that quiet corner of St. Helena Island: “Pat, what should I do?”
He pushed the button in his trusty Toyota to get along to his job interview — and not a thing happened. As it turned out, there was not a thing wrong with the battery.
“The message was pretty clear,” Haupt says in his new office in an old house in downtown Beaufort. “It was: ‘Stay!’ ”
And he did. Haupt left his job as director of the University of South Carolina Press in Columbia to become the first executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center at 308 Charles St.
It’s an ambitious undertaking led by Conroy’s widow, author Cassandra King of Beaufort, and board chair Jane Upshaw, retired chancellor of the University of South Carolina Beaufort. It has an honorary board with the likes of Barbra Striesand, who made “The Prince of Tides” sing on the big screen, and a large advisory council including Conroy’s sister, Kathy Harvey.
The earliest visitors have gravitated to the big chair at Conroy’s writing desk from Fripp Island. They sit where he sat to immortalize the pains and beauty of life with pen on yellow legal pad. They get their picture taken there. They see things on loan from the Pat Conroy Archive, like the handwritten letter he wrote home after his first day of teaching on Daufuskie Island — a year that he discovered his calling in life.
A large mural by Beaufort artist Aki Kato sets the Lowcountry scene that put the juice in Conroy’s blood. The Great Santini’s flight jacket is there, as well as a quilt filled with little symbols of a large life — like his basketball jersey number and his links to the Beaufort High School Tidal Wave.
But there’s more afoot by Cassandra King. She saw no need for a statue or a stuffy, unseen foundation to honor the life of the outgoing man she once said was always running for mayor.
It is instead a “gift to readers and writers,” Haupt said, and something to inspire literary pilgrimages, like the many that are already being made to Conroy’s grave.
Haupt’s first assignment 12 years ago at the USC Press was to get a book-jacket blurb from Pat Conroy.
It should have been easy. But it was one of the only times Conroy refused. The book was about Charleston, and Conroy was working on “South of Broad” and he didn’t think he could do it. But over the years, the two kept in touch, usually about book blurbs, until the day Conroy ran Haupt through the gauntlet of his festive Thursday lunch at the Griffin Market on Carteret Street.
Haupt recalls the usual cast of Conroy’s friends there, jabbing each other with familiar humor, and USCB professor and author Ellen Malphrus bringing along the 6-pound “Complete Poems of James Dickey.”
Afterward, Conroy gave Haupt a lift to his car parked on the river at the marina. He had to shove aside enough books to fill a library shelf, and then when Haupt got out, Conroy stuck out his bear claw of a hand and said, “Jon, you and I are going to be friends.”
“Pat never earned a dime in royalties,” Haupt said, but in the 15 books published so far, Conroy became chief advocate, cheerleader and tribal elder for these writers.
“It was difficult for him to have joy in his own self,” Haupt said. “But he could live it vicariously with these writers and ultimately Story River Books got Pat to be a teacher again.
“That is the spirit of the center. His legacy is set as a writer. He will never write another word. But his legacy as a teacher — that’s something we can continue.”
The center’s board has not yet set the strategic plan.
But it is raising money. And the center has in place the beginnings of its three missions.
It is a museum, a physical place where people can get inside glimpses at Conroy’s life. Exhibits will rotate.
It will host programs and classes beginning this spring for readers and writers. One may be on how to read more deeply, for example, because Conroy believed that to be a good writer you had to first be a good reader.
And the center will bring in visiting writers, not just for infomercials on their new books, Haupt said, but for longer and deeper discussions. It will include poets. And the classes and seminars will not be confined to the old white house behind the Wells Fargo bank. The goal is to reach people of all ages.
Haupt organized the Pat Conroy at 70 literary festival in Beaufort, which turned out to be mere months before Conroy died on March 4, 2015.
In one session, Jonathan Green, Ron Rash, Mary Alice Monroe and Patti Callahan Henry were asked by moderator Ellen Malphrus what Pat Conroy book was closest to their heart. Conroy came on stage, too, and said that at 70 he could realize that it was his first major book, “The Water is Wide,” about teaching school on Daufuskie Island.
“That was the magical year he became the man he was meant to be,” Haupt said.
He relates that his own magical experience in the cemetery beside his friend’s grave. He couldn’t help but notice that pilgrims had left little mementos after winding their way past the Brick Baptist Church, the Penn Center and into the woods to a Gullah cemetery — a trail into the quiet Lowcountry that Conroy knew they would make.
“He’s still teaching,” Haupt said.
Goals of the Pat Conroy Literary Center
▪ Host exhibits from Pat Conroy’s life and work
▪ Present readings by acclaimed regional and national authors
▪ Offer writing classes both at the center and also off site, at schools, senior centers, military bases, etc.
▪ Place writers in K-12 classrooms to teach and mentor students
▪ Sponsor lectures, master classes and special events
▪ Provide support for book groups
▪ Offer professional development for English teachers
▪ Provide need-based scholarships to its programs
▪ Create an English Teacher of the Year Award
▪ Create a community where writers help other writers
▪ Form partnerships across all educational levels
▪ Spread Pat Conroy’s love of reading to future generations