It looks as simple as an open-book exam today.
But things were much more complicated when Pat Conroy entered this brick building in the quiet Mossy Oaks neighborhood of Beaufort.
He walked into Beaufort High School as a junior in the fall of 1961 — yet another new start in another new town as the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot, the Great Santini.
Beaufort would become his true home, and his final home, where he died March 4, 2016.
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It all started at the school that is now Beaufort Middle School, its shiny halls lined with student artwork that reflects study of local history and humanities, including a mural with a likeness of Conroy.
Later he taught for two years in that building, before teaching on Daufuskie Island for a year, getting fired and then becoming a best-selling writer of “The Prince of Tides” and all the rest.
This week, the walls of that old school building will talk, so to speak.
Conroy’s experience at Beaufort High will be told through the voices of people who were there — his classmates, students, principal, and the school secretary. They will guide tours of the building, and participate in a panel discussion, as part of the second annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival that starts Thursday and runs through Sunday in Beaufort.
The theme this year is “The Transformative Power of Education.”
Stephanie Austin Edwards will greet the public in the old classroom of Gene Norris, the teacher Conroy talked about so much as totally transformative.
“We were on the literary magazine together,” Edwards said.
And they were fellow military brats who finally sensed a feeling of home in Beaufort, and after 22 years on stage in New York City she felt the tidal pull of home. And Conroy’s career reinvigorated her own yearn to write. She is now author of the acclaimed novel, “What We Set in Motion.”
On a recent tour of the school to prepare for the festival, Edwards mentioned the enormity of what Conroy did there. In only two years in a new school, he became president of the senior class, May King, best all-around, and MVP of the basketball team.
Fans on the tour will see the gym where Conroy had his best seasons.
But they’ll also see the baseball diamond where his friend Randy Randall died on the pitcher’s mound.
And they may hear former school secretary Norma Duncan say what she said to me: “I think the teachers saw something in Pat that needed nurturing and they just took him in. Anyone who saw his dad knew it was an issue.”
Through Conroy’s novels, the world would soon know what the teachers knew — that life was not an open-book exam.
But in Beaufort, Edwards said, “We found a gift.”
David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale
If you go
Events associated with Pat Conroy in the classroom to be held during the second annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort, Oct. 19-21, with the theme “The Transformative Power of Education”:
▪ Guided Tour of the former Beaufort High School (now Beaufort Middle School, 2501 Mossy Oaks Road, Beaufort): 4 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19; and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22. Tours will be led by Conroy’s Beaufort High classmates, teachers, students, and colleagues. Cost: $25. Advance tickets required, available online at patconroyliteraryfestival.org.
▪ Panel discussion “Pat Conroy as Beaufort High School Student and Teacher”: Beaufort Middle School, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19. Panelists are Conroy’s principal William E. Dufford, classmates Alexia Helsley and Stephanie Austin Edwards, and student Valerie Sayers (all now published authors themselves). Moderator: Conroy biographer Catherine Seltzer. Free.
▪ Panel discussion by Conroy’s friends who were all students and teachers together. Panelists George Garbade, Mike Jones and Bernie Schein share experiences Conroy was drawing on in his unfinished novel, “The Storms of Aquarius.” Moderator: Southern writer Janis Owens. Free.
▪ Two exhibits honoring Conroy as a teacher: University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts lobby, through Sunday, Oct. 22. “Pat Conroy at the Daufuskie Island School”: Photos and text by Billy Keyserling, with additional photographs by Paul Keyserling and Sallie Ann Robinson. “Humanizing Teaching: Pat Conroy and the Transformative Power of Teachers,” curated by Jessica Crouch, Pat Conroy Archivist, USC Libraries. Free.
▪ The musical, “Conrack”: USC Beaufort Center for the Arts, 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21. Presented by the Beaufort Community Theater with an all-local cast. Based on Conroy’s book “The Water Is Wide.” Event includes a conversation with Conroy’s Beaufort High principal William Dufford with Beaufort native and “Corridor of Shame” lead attorney, Carl B. “Butch” Epps III; with cake reception and book signing. Cost: $40. Advance tickets required, available online at patconroyliteraryfestival.org.