By Bo Emerson
Pat Conroy’s family eased him from this life into the next by reading poems, playing country music and singing to him. “We did sing the Marine Corps Hymn,” his sister Kathy Harvey said. “It was the only way to send him out.”
This was an appropriate choice. The man whose Marine Corps father had so brutalized his childhood still maintained the utmost respect for the Marines. Marine Corps families, Conroy used to say, eat other families for breakfast.
The same dynamic held in Conroy’s relationship with The Citadel, the military college in Charleston whose savage traditions he fictionalized in “The Lords of Discipline.”
After the book was published he was virtually banished from the campus, until the school and writer reconciled, and he was invited to campus to receive an honorary degree in 2001.
Strangely enough, that rapprochement was partly engineered by Conroy’s father, Col. Donald Conroy, the model for the abusive father in Conroy’s first novel, “The Great Santini.”
Conroy wrote about his alma mater, The Citadel, in the nonfiction “The Boo,” the affectionate nickname given to Assistant Commandant of Cadets Lt. Colonel Thomas N. Courvoisie. A similar character, Col. Thomas Berrineau, known as “The Bear,” showed up in the novel “Lords of Discipline.”
It, too, inspired a film by the same name, starring David Keith and Robert Prosky. Like “Santini,” it caused a personal rift for Conroy, as The Citadel community took issue with the jarring depiction of the school. “For 30 years he was all but barred from the campus,” the New York Times noted in a piece detailing Conroy’s reconciliation with his Citadel family.
After Conroy’s death was announced The Citadel’s official Twitter account posted messages of condolence.
Tributes are pouring in as fans, friends and family mourn the loss of the author whose muscular, vivid prose brought to life the storied streets of historic Charleston, delved into societal and cultural ills and explored complex relationship dynamics.
Noted storyteller and former College of Charleston President Alexander Sanders inspired numerous bits in Conroy novels, such as the tale of Happy the Tiger, who lived at a carwash. Happy showed up in “The Prince of Tides.”
“Everybody knows stories,” Sanders said. “The talent is in writing them down.”
He and his wife, Zoe, visited Conroy the Wednesday before his death, and true to form, was able to get a laugh out of otherwise somnolent Conroy with a story.
“What he did at bottom, that made him a great writer and a significant figure of the time,” said Sanders, “is that he enabled us to see ourselves as others see us.”
Harvey, Conroy’s sister, said gathering in a spirit of song, verse and prose at her brother’s passing was “the most powerful day of my life.”
The she added, “For those who believe in heaven, well, if there’s not a place in heaven for him, then the rest of us are (blank)ed.”