Pat Conroy gave the 2001 commencement speech at The Citadel, something he once thought Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein or feminist actress Jane Fonda had a better shot at.
Conroy, who died Friday at 70 following a battle with pancreatic cancer, was estranged from his alma mater for decades over “Lords of Discipline,” the novel set in a brutal military academy. Many in The Citadel community took issue with the jarring depiction of the school.
The school and writer reconciled, though, and Conroy was invited to speak at commencement in 2001. His speech was as unflinching as his novel had been.
“Class of 2001, listen up. I don’t have much time,” he said. “They don’t give you much time for graduation speeches. Because of various aspects of my character and fate, I did not get to address the corps of cadets in the last century. There were many years when I thought that Saddam Hussein or Jane Fonda had a better chance of addressing this class than I did.”
He then took a graceful turn in citing the first line of his controversial book.
“In 1979, the year most of y’all were born, I was finishing up ‘The Lords of Discipline,’ and I tried to think of a line or words that would sum up better than anything how I felt and how other people feel about this college. I wanted it to be something ringing and affirmative, something true, something that would be true for every person who’s every gone through the Long Gray Line. I came up with this line: ‘I wear the ring.’ I think it is the best line I have ever written and the best English sentence I am capable of writing.”
Toward the end, he issues a very touching invitation to the cadets in the audience that day: He said he wanted them all to attend his funeral.
Here’s a video of his speech: