We all grow up with heroes — those we admire and aspire to be like. Sometimes those heroes are people we know and see every day. Sometimes we only know them from afar, and only for the piece of their life that’s shared for public consumption.
I never had the opportunity to meet Pat Conroy, but throughout most of my life, he has remained one of my heroes.
Pat Conroy passed away last Friday at his home in Beauford, South Carolina from pancreatic cancer at the age of 70.
In 1974, I was a 12-year-old boy growing up in Columbia, South Carolina. There was a new movie based on a 1972 fictional novel by a South Carolina author written from his experience as a first-year teacher on Daufuskie Island in the Carolina Lowcountry. Because the book was written by a South Carolina author about a South Carolina teacher, everyone in school got to go on a field trip to the movie theater. I remember our teacher telling us about Pat Conroy and what he went through teaching in a public school on a segregated island in the 1960s.
The movie, “Conrack,” based on Conroy’s book “The Water is Wide,” was an eye-opening experience. It was the first movie or television show I recall that humanized African-Americans, portraying them as real people rather than a caricature based on stereotypes of that era.
It was also the first time I realized there was an actual color bar that separated our nation based on skin color. While it was a few years later when I read “The Water is Wide,” I never forgot the impact that movie had on my life.
In 1976, Conroy released what I consider one of the greatest American novels of all time, “The Great Santini.” I was in high school when the book was released and as I read, I recall feeling like the author had crawled inside my head and written the words just for me. While a fictional novel, it was based on Conroy’s life growing up the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot.
Like Conroy, I was born into a military family. Like Conroy, my Dad was a larger-than-life war hero. Like Conroy, nothing I did was ever good enough for my father. Conroy wrote a scene in the book with the oldest son confessing his shame to his mom because he “prayed to God for a war so dad would have someone else to fight besides me.” When I read that line, I openly wept because at that time in my life, it was exactly how I felt.
To this day “The Great Santini” remains one of my favorite novels of all time.
It inspired me to become a writer.
And, like Conroy, to move people by telling a story with words.
Conroy had a number of best-selling novels, including “The Lords of Discipline” based on his experience of going to college at The Citadel. Perhaps his most famous work is “The Prince of Tides,” also based on his personal experiences.
It was in the early ‘90s, my journalism career was just starting to take off, when I read that Conroy had paid a significant price following the release of “The Great Santini.” Though extremely successful, his family felt the “fiction novel” hit a little too close to home. His family didn’t speak to him for years and as a result, he cited that as the reason for the failure of his marriage. While the rest of his family was protesting his book signings, the book caused his father to changing both his attitude and outlook on life. In an interview, Conroy said he and his father became close afterward.
I remember reading that and thinking that maybe I could write something that would serve as the same type of catalyst for my dad and I to have that kind of relationship.
A few years later, I was back in South Carolina for a visit. My career had really taken off at that point. I walked through the house and in nearly every room Dad had clipped a story I had written, framed it and hung it on the wall. I always knew my dad loved me and wanted the best for me, but that was the first time I ever felt he was proud of me. As I stared in disbelief at the framed clippings on the wall, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was similar to what Conroy felt when his dad began accompanying him on book signings — even signing books with the phrase “I hope you enjoy my son’s latest work of fiction,” underlining the word “fiction” five or six times, signed “Ol’ lovable, likable Col. Don Conroy, USMC (Ret.), the Great Santini.”
In 2013, Conroy released the memoir “The Death of Santini,” which recalled the relationship he shared with his father until his dad’s passing in 1998.
Some of his other works include “Beach Music” and “South of Broad,” both capturing the essence of life in the Lowcountry by sharing stories that only Conroy can tell.
In addition to being a teacher, he also worked as a journalist, and having grown up in a military family, he has researched and written much on the lives of a military brats and the special community they share.
Inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame, he is also recognized as a leading figure of late-20th century Southern literature. Not only was he an Author in Residence at the University of South Carolina (my alma mater), in 2013 he was named editor-at-large for Story River Books, a newly created fiction division of the University of South Carolina Press.
I am deeply saddened at the news of his passing. I wish I could say I knew him. But what I can say is his work had a positive influence on my life, and for that, I will always be grateful.
Godspeed Pat. Thank you for the words that have the power to inspire.
Neal White is the Editor and General Manager of Waxahachie Newspapers Inc. His recent novel, “Crosswinds” published by The Next Chapter Publishing, is available at Amazon.com. Contact Neal at email@example.com or 469-517-1470. Follow Neal on Facebook at Neal White – Waxahachie Newspapers Inc., or on Twitter at wni_nwhite.