Pat Conroy, who arrived in Beaufort as a teenage Marine brat and found both a home and palette for his best-selling novels, died March 4, 2016, at his home on Battery Creek.
“The water is wide but he has now crossed over,” said his wife, Cassandra King, through a family friend.
Conroy, 70, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only four weeks ago. When he announced it Feb. 15 on Facebook, he said, “I intend to fight it hard.”
He died at 7:43 p.m., surrounded by loved ones and family.
The water is wide but he has now crossed over.
Cassandra King, wife of Pat Conroy
Stomach pain was at first thought to be pancreatitis. But further testing confirmed shortly before the public announcement that it was pancreatic cancer, which spread rapidly.
His lyrical novels painted harsh pictures of inadequate schools, an abusive father and South Carolina’s military college, The Citadel. He tackled threats to the Lowcountry environment with equal vigor. But he loved each of his subjects, and the town he adopted after 23 moves in 16 years loved him back.
Beaufort historian Lawrence S. Rowland said Conroy put Beaufort on a national stage through books like “Prince of Tides” and “The Great Santini.” And those novels brought Hollywood to town, and the stars would return for other blockbusters like “Forrest Gump” and “The Big Chill.”
I can’t imagine anything other than World War II that promoted Beaufort any more than what Pat did.
Beaufort historian Lawrence S. Rowland
“I can’t imagine anything other than World War II that promoted Beaufort any more than what Pat did,” Rowland said. “The value of Pat’s publicity — to put Beaufort on the silver screen and advertise it, and the millions of fans who read his every word — is hard to measure.
“I know there’s controversy, and I think he’s entitled to any opinion he chooses, but the amount of good he’s done is exceptional. It’s a huge economic boon to this town and he’s the kind of guy we ought to raise a statue for.”
Beaufort Mayor and close friend Billy Keyserling said, “His impact has really been to the region and opening up eyes, concurrently with the growth of the greater Lowcountry. He was a part of turning the eyes to this part of the world.”
Jonathan Haupt, director of the University of South Carolina Press, said, “It’s a sad, sad day for South Carolina and for literature.”
Conroy appeared to feel fine when the University of South Carolina Beaufort hosted the “Pat Conroy at 70” festival organized by Haupt in late October. Numerous writers, friends and family members came to celebrate a life that was on an uptick.
Conroy had never been busier, more productive, or more public. In addition to his own writing, he was promoting a stable of other writers in the Story River Books imprint he edited for the University of South Carolina Press.
Conroy had been on a health kick for four years. He said that’s when he nearly died of his own bad habits, so he quit drinking, hired a nutritionist, joined the YMCA, lost weight, and last year opened the Mina & Conroy Fitness Studio in Port Royal with his personal trainer.
“There is nothing on my resume that indicates I’ll be successful in this unusual endeavor,” he wrote on his web page. “But I’m doing it because there are four or five books I’d like to write before I meet with Jesus of Nazareth — as my mother promised me — on the day of my untimely death, or reconcile myself to a long stretch of nothingness as my non-believing friends insist.”
Home at last
Alexia Jones Helsley says she was Conroy’s first editor.
The daughter of the Baptist preacher in town was editor of the Tidal Wave newspaper at Beaufort High School, where Conroy first latched onto the Lowcountry in the remarkable class of 1963.
“He took a track meet and turned it into a race between good and the Devil,” Helsley said. “It was hilarious.”
Another time, principal Bill Dufford asked Conroy as president of the senior class to address the girls before a powder puff football game.
“He took a napkin from the cafeteria and wrote this little poem on it and got up and read it,” Helsley said. “We thought he was so talented, but we had no idea how talented he was.”
Conroy was a basketball star and Best All Around in a class that had six National Merit Finalists, and included Daisy Youngblood, a sculptor who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”; Daun van Ee, editor of the papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Library of Congress; and Julie Zachowski, retired director of the Beaufort County library system. Helsley is an archivist who has written a history of Beaufort. Conroy is among three members of the class inducted into the school’s hall of fame.
Conroy wrote often of inspiring teachers there, like Millen Ellis and novelist Ann Head, but especially Eugene Norris.
“He taught me to value the old, to sharpen my eye for the most intricate detail, and to strengthen all the appetites upon which beauty itself fed,” Conroy would later write. “In the end, Gene Norris handed me the key to my first hometown and made it feel like the most sublime gift.”