Culture // 7 min Read

Beaufort’s Beloved Prince

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Aug 20, 2021

Some four years after the Pat Conroy Literary Center began to come to fruition, a line from those early days still lingers on the center’s website:

“The tale of the incipient Pat Conroy Literary Center is still evolving.”

That simple sentence says so much about the 4-year-old center that serves both as a living tribute to a legendary author who called the South Carolina Lowcountry home and as the setting for his beautiful stories aimed at fostering a community of writers and readers he inspired.

And haven’t we all learned a bit about evolving in the past year?

In an unprecedented year in which many retreated into books to escape their quarantined realities, it was a tumultuous season for non-profits and the publishing industry alike.

But the Conroy Center has found a way to adapt and thrive, presenting virtual programming that has extended its reach far beyond the “literary pilgrims” who numbered more than 3,000 a week before the novel coronavirus entered the zeitgeist.

The pilgrims are still trickling in, though certainly in smaller numbers, but they’ve been joined by a far-flung audience that is learning about a Lowcountry treasure from afar, perhaps setting a future pilgrimage when the pandemic is in our past.

“It’s been remarkable to see how many people we reach now who probably never would have been able to visit us in person under any circumstances,” said Jonathan Haupt, the center’s executive director. “Now they can take a virtual tour or participate in a workshop or author discussion. The programs that have really become central pieces of what we do here are all things we’ve been able to translate into this fascinating new virtual world of ours.”

Creating fascinating worlds was kind of Pat Conroy’s thing—or more appropriately, painting a picture that turns the mundane into something magical.

The first of seven children born to a Marine officer from Chicago and a Southern belle from Alabama, Conroy found his voice in Beaufort, South Carolina. After growing up on military bases throughout the South and graduating from The Citadel, a common theme in his writing, Conroy returned to Beaufort High School to teach English and psychology at his alma mater.

In 1969, he made the decision that forever changed his trajectory and reputation. A young idealist with a flair for adventure, Conroy took an assignment teaching in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, a remote island opposite Calibogue Sound from Hilton Head Island and accessible only by water. Most of the students were descended from previously enslaved people and had virtually no connection to the world beyond Daufuskie, save for a rare boat trip to Hilton Head or Savannah.

After one year of teaching on Daufuskie, Conroy was fired for his unconventional teaching practices, refusal to allow corporal punishment of his students, and clashes with the school’s administration over the degree to which the children’s education had long been neglected.

But it set him on another path, captured in the heart-wrenching and inspirational 1972 memoir The Water Is Wide and the 1974 film adaptation Conrack, a nickname from his Daufuskie students. It was not Conroy’s first book, but it was the one that introduced the world to the author who would become a Lowcountry institution.

Even as his legend grew, with many of his passion projects becoming inspiring novels and his most successful work, The Prince of Tides, adapted into an award-winning film starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte that earned Conroy an Oscar nomination, Conroy never lost that everyman charm.

It became common over the years to bump into Conroy in a Beaufort coffee shop or eatery, and he was even known to stop by a table where a young writer was laboring over a keyboard and drop a bit of wit and wisdom and a sly wink or grin.

Always a teacher. Always good for a laugh.

The tale of the Pat Conroy Literary Center is still evolving, as the website’s history section reminds us. It’s stated mission is to “cultivate a passionate and inclusive reading and writing community in honor of Pat Conroy, who dedicated his life to spreading his love for literature and writing to future generations.”

The center began to take shape after Conroy’s death from pancreatic cancer in March 2016 and officially opened the next year. It continues to carry on Conroy’s legacy as both a writer and teacher on two fronts—through the interpretive center that serves as a museum of sorts for locals and “pilgrims” alike who want to immerse themselves in Conroy’s life and legacy and explore how deep his Lowcountry roots go and through a robust community of writers, editors, publishers, avid readers, and others who want to connect with one another and help each other develop their voices, much like Conroy did as a younger man.

Achieving both aims simultaneously will become more feasible when the center moves into its third—and hopefully final—home at 601 Bladen Street in Beaufort’s historic district. The move scheduled for early 2021 will include a classroom and meeting space separate from the interpretive center, allowing for expanded programming and the ability to better accommodate workshops and tour groups, as well as expand upon opportunities to engage the next generation of readers.

The Camp Conroy summer camp for kids was one of many programs that went virtual in 2020, attracting a dozen students from five states in three time zones, most of whom never would have had the opportunity to attend in person. The same has been true for virtual tours and workshops, which have attracted Zoom-bound groups for whom the Conroy Center might not have been on the radar pre-pandemic.

Even the annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival went digital in 2020, and the four-day celebration of Conroy’s legacy was an online success. They’ll replicate the model for the annual March Forth event remembering the day of Conroy’s passing, using the virtual format to bring in additional authors and speakers and expanding the event from a one-day affair that attracted about 120 people to a three-day celebration with a global reach.

Pat Conroy’s storytelling has a way of wriggling into one’s heart and mind in a way that isn’t easy to shake, which is why all of those literary pilgrims were flocking to beautiful Beaufort by the sea in the time before COVID-19 and why they’ll be back as soon as they can.

One Conroy aficionado from Florida was so bummed about missing her yearly trip that she signed up for five virtual tours. Then she got to make the annual pilgrimage after all and brought a friend. “I just stood out of the way and let her show him around,” Haupt says with a laugh.

It’s not just the Conroy connection that keeps people coming back, though. It’s all the same things that kept him here and inspired his beautiful prose.

It’s the smell of salt marsh and pluff mud, the warmth and kindness of the Lowcountry, and
the character of this place and the people it produces.

Conroy used his words to export the Lowcountry’s charm all over the globe, and the Pat Conroy Literary Center continues to do the same while fostering the next generation of authors who can carry on Conroy’s spirit of caring camaraderie.

“People are so happy to come to Beaufort to visit, to learn about Pat Conroy and immerse themselves in Pat’s story and the lessons that one can learn from Pat’s experiences as writers, readers, teachers. He was this human being who lived a life of service,” Haupt says. “We are continuing Pat’s legacy as a teacher by having all of these wonderful workshops we’re able to do online now, hopefully back in person again soon, but also the lecture programs and shining the spotlight on other writers, who have good stories to tell and good lessons to teach, whether they’re Conroy-connected or not. More often than not, they have no overt connection to Mr. Conroy, but they’re the kinds of folks that I think Pat would be supportive of if he were here. He’s not, but we are, and we’ll continue on in that way.” •

Read the original story in the Spring / Summer 2021 edition of the bluff.

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