BEAUFORT, S.C. – He wore the ring.
Long before Pat Conroy was a giant of letters, whose words landed on the page as gracefully as Spanish moss drapes live oaks in the Lowcountry, he was a bare-headed lad enduring Hell Week and other delights of knob year at The Citadel. Then, he was a cadet with a priceless piece of gold on his hand.
Conroy died Friday at 70, not long after revealing he had pancreatic cancer. Hundreds attended a visitation Monday night, including his longtime editor, Nan A. Talese, who said he was more than 150 pages into a new novel that someday will be published.
Another capacity crowd attended his funeral Tuesday, and prime real estate in St. Peter’s Catholic Church, right behind family members, was allotted to a special group of Citadel graduates. MORE PHOTOS HERE
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In 2001, after years of estrangement from his alma mater because of controversy over his novel “The Lords of Discipline,” Conroy returned to speak at commencement and issued a special invitation: “I’d like to invite each one of you in the class of 2001 to my funeral.”
The gesture, he said, would be his way of commemorating even in death his reconciliation with his Citadel family.
“I have told my wife and my heirs that I want the class of 2001 to have an honored place whenever my funeral takes place, and I hope as many of you will come as you possibly can,” Conroy said that day. “I’m going to tell you how to get in my funeral. You walk up toward them, you find the usher waiting outside. You put up your Citadel ring. Let them check for the 2001. And each one of you, I want you to say this before you enter the church at which I’m going to be buried. You tell them: ‘I wear the ring.’”
On Tuesday, scores of 2001 graduates did just that.
“The ring is the one thing that binds us,” Ryan Graham of Charleston said.
Russ Touchberry of Summerville, S.C., reflected on Conroy’s support of opening up The Citadel to women.
“He led the school through some challenging times,” he said. “The school is better for it.”
The first woman to graduate from The Citadel, former Atlanta resident Nancy Mace, wasn’t able to attend Tuesday, but she said via email that she was “devastated by his loss. So generous, kind and talented.”
Eileen Quinn of Charleston, who did make it, said honoring Conroy’s wish made for a touching class reunion.
“Here we are, catching up on all these memories,” she said. “He’s still giving back to us, even in death.”
Alex Sanders, former president of the College of Charleston, a past chief judge of the South Carolina Court of Appeals and a former member of both the state House and Senate, delivered Conroy’s eulogy.
“Daniel Patrick Conroy was the best storyteller of our time, maybe any time,” he said. Sanders recalled his friend’s joy when “he and The Citadel kissed and made up after a rocky relationship.”
The author quipped that he was just glad they’d stopped using his books as kindling, Sanders said.
“The Lords of Discipline” was set at a thinly veiled fictional doppelganger of The Citadel, and many took issue with its jarring description of the school.
But not Citadel cadets Quinton Marshall and Warren Sledge, who served honor guard duty at Conroy’s funeral.
“We were speechless when they told us they wanted us to do this,” said Marshall, a senior from Raleigh, N.C. “He could put The Citadel into words like no one else could. As a Citadel cadet, you feel a kinship with every Citadel cadet.”
With Conroy, he said, “We feel a special bond.”