Our Own Prince of Tides
“Love’s action. It isn’t talk and it never has been.” ~Pat Conroy, Beach Music
Despite the controversies he often spurred, one Lowcountry legend's legacy grows stronger each year. Late New York Times best-selling author Pat Conroy ruffled feathers, whether by championing the rights of minority students on Daufuskie Island, shining light on the taboo subject of domestic violence, or exposing hazing rituals at the Citadel. The Beaufort resident never shied away from spreading hard truths if, by doing so, he could help make the world--and, particularly, his beloved Lowcountry--a better place. Now an area festival strives to keep that dream marching forth.
The Conrack Days
Pat Conroy first came to the world's attention with the 1974 release of the film "Conrack." Based on Conroy's 1972 memoir The Water Is Wide, which detailed the author's year teaching the native Gullah children of Daufuskie Island (called "Yamacraw Island" in the book and movie), the film's title reflected the students' nickname for their new much-loved teacher. The award-winning movie starred Jon Voight as Conroy himself, and highlighted his efforts to show this neglected population the wider world of the mainland. Sadly, his efforts were not appreciated by the local school board at the time, which fired Conroy (pictured in the Daufuskie classroom above) for "disobeying instruction" and "conduct unbecoming a professional educator" after he complained repeatedly that the island children were not receiving an education equal to their mainland (and Caucasian) peers. His termination was undoubtedly the students' loss.
While The Water Is Wide shone a light on racial inequality, Conroy's future books continued to expose the need for societal change. The son of a Marine fighter pilot based at the USMC Air Station in Beaufort, Conroy attended The Citadel in Charleston after graduating from
Beaufort High School as a basketball star and class president. His experiences at home and at the famed military college eventually led to two semi-autobiographical novels (as many of his other books admittedly were), The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline. Again, these best-selling novels were made into major Hollywood films that addressed topics not openly discussed at that time: domestic violence and hazing. Filmed primarily in Beaufort, "The Great Santini" (the nickname of Conroy's real-life father) drew rancor from members of the author's own extended family, who resented such public sharing of dirty laundry (see photo above). Similarly, officials and graduates of The Citadel were incensed at the negative light in which "The Lords of Discipline" portrayed their institute--so much so, in fact, that Conroy
was unwelcome at his alma mater for the next two decades. Always maintaining his loyalty to the goals of the institution, he was eventually invited back as a visitor and graduation speaker in 2001 (see photo at right). By that time, the evils of hazing had become more widely acknowledged in schools and organizations across the country, and Conroy's initial complaints were seen for what they always had been: a call to justice and a plea to improve a well-intentioned but flawed system.
Following Pat Conroy's death from cancer on March 4, 2016, several thousand mourners attended his funeral on Lady's Island--including an honor guard of Citadel graduates from the class of 2001 (whom he had invited to his hypothetical future funeral during the convocation speech he had given them nearly 15 years prior). Not long after, the non-profit Pat Conroy Literary Center opened in Beaufort (see photo below) as a memorial to the man who had so loved the Lowcountry and its authors. A mentor to so many writers, he would be delighted by the myriad workshops, lectures, book clubs, youth camps, author signings, and festivals offered by the Center. Perhaps the event that most represents his living legacy, though, is the one named after the day he died. Each year on the anniversary of Conroy's
death, the "March Forth" celebration is held to honor the major themes of his writing and teaching life, including social justice, inclusivity, conservation, education, and storytelling. Co-sponsored in part by the Penn Center, local schools and bookstores, literacy organizations, and the South Carolina Humanities foundation, this festival features speakers and entertainers who--like Conroy himself--aren't afraid to tackle the tough truths that can make our wonderful Lowcountry even better. This year, let's all "march forth" and join the tide of change.
To learn more about Pat Conroy, his award-winning books, and the non-profit Pat Conroy Literary Center, check out www.PatConroyLiteraryCenter.org.