David Lauderdale

Beaufort’s love affair with Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy's gravesite

Author Pat Conroy's gravesite, at St. Helena Memorial Garden on St. Helena Island, is photographed on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.
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Author Pat Conroy's gravesite, at St. Helena Memorial Garden on St. Helena Island, is photographed on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.

Pat Conroy’s love affair with Beaufort has been lavishly documented.

But Beaufort’s love affair with Conroy is in its early chapters.

This should be a true love story — as good for business as it is for the soul of a town that took in a Marine Corps brat, gave him a place to teach school and ended up as the palette for his world-famous novels.

Conroy died March 4 in a mad rush, just weeks after we heard he had cancer.

It was a story gobbled up by the world at large, much like his string of best-sellers and the movies made from them.

But at home, Beaufort’s lasting love affair with Conroy showed first at his grave on St. Helena Island. People have come to the quiet place and left objects of affection: a little basketball, conch shells, a Mason jar of sea water, money from Hong Kong weighted down by a metallic cricket.

“My wound is geography ...” the stone says.

And if we’re smart, that geography, that wound, that legacy can be our salve.

Building blocks

People talked of a statue of Conroy.

But his widow, novelist Cassandra King, guided us in a different direction.

In a recent interview in an old home at 308 Charles St., King discussed her husband’s legacy.

She told how that building will soon blossom into the Pat Conroy Literary Center, if enough people support it as donors and volunteers. Rather than a cold statue, it is to be a warm place for readers and writers of all ages and descriptions.

His books will stand alone.

Cassandra King

King told of the “three or four boxes” full of letters that have come in since Conroy’s death, including a handwritten note from Bill Clinton. Others are from the common folk who gravitated to Conroy with their own tales of fractured lives.

In life, Conroy couldn’t answer all his letters. But King said, “Sometimes he’d call people, particularly if they had a military connection.” He ended up with a long-term connection that way with an elderly woman in Oklahoma.

Now the pieces are coming together to keep Conroy’s uncanny connection to the people alive in his hometown.

It starts with the inaugural Pat Conroy Literary Festival to be held Oct. 20-22 in Beaufort.

It will be modeled after the successful three-day birthday event last fall called “Pat Conroy at 70: A Literary Festival Celebrating South Carolina’s Prince of Titles.”

It is seen as an extension of one of Conroy’s book signings. Writers of his stature don’t do what he did all his adult life: sit until every single fan had come through the line, chatting with them, encouraging them, cracking jokes and making connections — even if it took until 1 a.m.

Scheduled presenters are writers from near and far. It will also be a coming-out party for the Pat Conroy Literary Center, which is scheduled to come alive early next year. And it is to feature a tour of Conroy sites led by his inimitable friend Bernie Schein, starting at the grave of Col. Don Conroy and ending at the grave of the son who had the gall to write about him.

The festival is to be an annual event, each with a general theme. It starts with this year’s look at place as a character and muse, much more than a setting.

Conroy helped us see that our character is a place called home.

Books

Our love affair with Conroy will be kind of bookish.

Here are some things in the works:

“Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life” will debut at the Literary Festival. This 320-page, nonfiction hardcover from publisher Nan A. Telese is filled with the words of Conroy. They come from his blog, magazine articles, speeches and letters. King wrote the introduction. She said she’ll be making the book tour, joking that she will be much like Conroy’s father, the “Great Santini,” who loved to sign his son’s scorching book about him.

Farther out, a collection of essays about life with Conroy by 70 writers will be published by the University of South Carolina Press. Jonathan Haupt, who heads the Press and will direct the Literary Festival with the help of Ellen Malphrus of Bluffton, said the book will include Pulitzer Prize winners and words from Barbra Streisand of “The Prince of Tides.”

Shein is working on a memoir of his life with Conroy. “I’m telling the whole truth,” he said, “but it is definitely loving.”

Just by having the center, we’re helping other writers find their voice, and this is what Pat embraced and nurtured.

Cassandra King

Story River Books, an imprint from the USC Press that was edited by Conroy and was the pride of his last years, is going strong, Haupt said. New titles are still flowing.

This year, for the first time, all incoming freshmen at the University of South Carolina Beaufort had a summer reading assignment. It was Conroy’s first success and a story of Beaufort County: “The Water is Wide.”

Conroy is the centerpiece of the AJC Decatur Book Festival near Atlanta on this Labor Day Weekend. Keynote speakers on Conroy were to be Rick Bragg; King; Conroy’s daughter Melissa Conroy; poet and novelist Ron Rash; and journalist Bronwen Dickey, daughter of James Dickey.

As to the novel Conroy was working on when he got ill, King said it is doubtful it can be published. She said he had written about 200 pages and had an outline of where it was to go from there. It’s possible, she said, that other writers who were actually part of the story could help finish it, but that is unknown.

Conroy had completed a book for young readers that is still forthcoming.

But King suggests our love affair focus on the Pat Conroy Literary Center.

“His books will stand alone,” she said.

“I want people to remember — and to know — somebody who was that generous and that giving as a person. Just by having the center, we’re helping other writers find their voice, and this is what Pat embraced and nurtured. You know, he never really stopped being a teacher.”

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David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale

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