October 26th – Pat Conroy

“A story untold could be the one that kills you.” 

Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy was born on October 26th, 1945, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the eldest of seven children. His father was a highly decorated Marine, and his mother taught him his love for language. His family was later the source of all his books, especially his larger-than-life, often abusive father.

The family frequently moved around military bases in the Southern United States. Conroy finished High School in Beaufort, South Carolina, then attended the Citadel. His first book, The Boo, was published in 1970 and dedicated to Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, his mentor at the Citadel. After graduating, Conroy went to teach at Beaufort High School, then in 1969 took a job teaching underprivileged children in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island. He chronicled his experience in his 1972 book The Water is Wide, which was recognized by the National Education Association for its unflinching portrayal of systemic racism in the public school system. A 1974 adaptation of the book, Conrack, allowed Conroy to quit teaching and focus on writing. 

In 1973 Conroy, along with his wife Barbara and three daughters, moved to Atlanta. Conroy worked on his novel, The Great Santini (1976), an emotional portrayal of his childhood under his abusive father. After its publication, Conroy and his first wife Barbara divorced, as did his parents, his mother Peg offering the novel as evidence during court proceedings. The Great Santini was adapted into a film, as was his next novel, The Lords of Discipline (1980)based on the Citadel.  

In 1981 Conroy remarried, and moved to Rome, Georgia, where he worked on The Prince of Tides (1986) his most successful book. It sold millions of copies and was adapted into a Blockbuster film by Barbara Streisand in 1991. After Beach Music (1995), a dark and ambitious work, Conroy’s second marriage broke down, their divorce finalized on his 50th birthday. Around that time, his youngest brother Tom committed suicide by jumping to his death from a fourteen-story apartment building in Columbia, South Carolina. He was just thirty-three. These events led Conroy to have what he termed his “great breakdown.” 

He married his third wife, writer Cassandra King, in 1998, after which, he admitted, his life got decidedly better.  

My Reading Life, published in 2010, chronicles the importance of literature in his life. 

In a memoir dedicated to his siblings, The Death of Santini (2013), published thirty-seven years after The Great Santini, which exposed and broke open his family, Conroy shows how even the deepest of wounds within a family can be healed. 

Conroy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2016 and died on March 4th, 2016. He is buried in a small African-American cemetery owned by a Baptist Church on St. Helena Island near Beaufort, South Carolina. 

Lesson from Conroy: 

Conroy was known for his deep interest in people and their stories. He listened closely to not only others, but himself, mining his own depths and personal history to draw out truths and understanding. Don’t be afraid to do the same. 

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