I was in bed on the night of March 4 when I got a text message from a friend letting me know that Pat Conroy had died. Just weeks before, I had reeled at the news that Conroy had pancreatic cancer, and now he was gone. I immediately got up and started rereading some of my favorite passages from his work. I began with this one:
To describe our growing up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, “There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.” I would say, “Breathe deeply,” and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life.…
I was fresh out of college and living in New York City when I got around to reading my first Pat Conroy book. He had just published Beach Music, and the media, including the magazine where I worked, were ravenous in their coverage. While fact-checking the piece we were running on Conroy, I called in most of his earlier books. I was immediately intrigued by a fairly slim memoir called The Water Is Wide that chronicled Conroy’s time on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina teaching the local Gullah children, who knew little of the world beyond their island sands. I had grown up in Savannah, not too far from Daufuskie. I blazed through it in a couple of days. Next I devoured The Lords of Discipline, followed by The Great Santini. Finally, I thought, here was someone who understood the rhythm of the tides, the smell of pluff mud, the stateliness of a two-hundred-year-old live oak, and the South in all its complexity.
Many years later, I heard about a new magazine called Garden & Gun based in Charleston, South Carolina. The premier issue’s cover showed Conroy standing barefoot in a garden pond. And soon thereafter I escaped New York to work for G&G. In 2013 I finally had the opportunity to meet Conroy in person. He and his wife, the novelist Cassandra King, were in town for an event, and they agreed to stop by the office to talk about their latest books. And while we had a wide-ranging and spirited discussion about their work, what I remember most is the way Conroy treated people. As soon as he arrived, he started popping into offices introducing himself and asking questions with a genuine interest in each person’s life. Here was one of the South’s most revered writers, and he wanted to hear about us. “That’s Pat,” said King, with a smile.
He was especially giving toward other writers. Bronwen Dickey, the daughter of the late James Dickey, not only credits Conroy with getting her career off the ground but also remembers him as a constant source of encouragement. “This past year, when I finally finished the manuscript for my first book, I was hesitant to send it to Pat, but not only did he read it, he sent me a three-page handwritten letter about it,” Dickey says. “I’ve never met any writer so generous with his time, so lighthearted about the craft, and so ferociously loyal to the people he loved.”
Pat Conroy is buried in a Gullah cemetery on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, forever a part of the Lowcountry he cherished.