David Lauderdale

Pat Conroy and pal John Warley together again

John Warley was at The Citadel on a football scholarship. Pat Conroy was there to play basketball.

They both played baseball -- not for runs, hits and errors, but to escape the Charleston military college, if only for a fleeting glimpse at normal colleges that had women.

The two were first thrown together at a table in the training mess hall.

"Pat was very funny," Warley recalls. "He had a finely developed sense of sarcasm."

In that sense, The Citadel was an Eldorado for two guys who preferred to debate the value of fiction vs. nonfiction to a mandatory formation. Conroy was fiction, practically memorizing "Look Homeward, Angel." Warley was nonfiction, reading Winston Churchill's six-volume tome on World War II "as a recreational diversion."

As their lives unfolded following that Lowcountry spring of 1966, an instant friendship grew thicker than "War and Peace."

On Saturday, Warley and Conroy will share a table again. This time Warley will sign copies of his first book while sitting alongside Conroy, one of America's best-selling authors. It will be the first signing for Warley's political genetics thriller, "Bethesda's Child," which contains a preface by Conroy. The event from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Verdier House on Beaufort's Bay Street is part of the Historic Beaufort Foundation's Fall Festival of Houses and Gardens.

After The Citadel, Conroy came home to Beaufort to teach school, then wrote his way around the globe before coming home again to live on Fripp Island. Warley went to law school and practiced law in Virginia while he and Barbara raised four children. They, too, moved to "breathtakingly beautiful" Beaufort. That was six years ago, but Warley's mother was a Barnwell, and he has enough family legends in the Parish Church of St. Helena cemetery that he teases his house guests they'll have to take the "Dead Barnwells Tour."

In 1991, Warley sent his friend the manuscript of "Bethesda's Child." Conroy was enthused and so was his star agent, but the big-time publishers never bit. Conroy remained in his friend's corner, pushing him, saying, "John, you gotta read this book, this writer, this genre," Warley said.

"I've had one of the best tutors in America," he said.

He's now written four novels, including this one published by Xlibris. And his essay on fatherhood will be featured on NPR's "This I Believe."

Life itself taught Warley to appreciate fiction. He said he's learned empathy. That's what it takes, he says, to breathe life into fictional characters.

Conroy wrote about his friend in his book about playing basketball at The Citadel, "My Losing Season."

"John became one of those friends that I call on when I am most limping and troubled," he said.

That empathy will bring the old friends together again Saturday at a special Lowcountry table.