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Considered one of the finest Southern writers of his generation, author Pat Conroy's tales of domineering fathers and dysfunctional families provided material for some of film's greatest actors. After an early daunting attempt at a teaching career, Conroy channeled the deeply affecting experience into the memoir The Water is Wide, which was quickly adapted as the feature film "Conrack" (1974), starring John Voight as the young author. Conroy found even greater success when he mined his difficult adolescence and frequently violent home life for a pair of novels that were each subsequently made into the films "The Great Santini" (1979) - featuring a tour de force performance by Robert Duvall - and "The Lords of Discipline" (1983), the latter inspired by Conrad's challenging time at The Citadel, a revered military college. First as a novel and then a feature film co-scripted by Conroy, "The Prince of Tides" (1991) brought the novelist the greatest critical acclaim of his career and earned an Oscar nomination for the film's star, Nick Nolte. Although Hollywood collaborations later tapered off, Conroy nonetheless continued to enthrall readers with such bestsellers as 1995's The Beach House and 2009's...
Considered one of the finest Southern writers of his generation, author Pat Conroy's tales of domineering fathers and dysfunctional families provided material for some of film's greatest actors. After an early daunting attempt at a teaching career, Conroy channeled the deeply affecting experience into the memoir The Water is Wide, which was quickly adapted as the feature film "Conrack" (1974), starring John Voight as the young author. Conroy found even greater success when he mined his difficult adolescence and frequently violent home life for a pair of novels that were each subsequently made into the films "The Great Santini" (1979) - featuring a tour de force performance by Robert Duvall - and "The Lords of Discipline" (1983), the latter inspired by Conrad's challenging time at The Citadel, a revered military college. First as a novel and then a feature film co-scripted by Conroy, "The Prince of Tides" (1991) brought the novelist the greatest critical acclaim of his career and earned an Oscar nomination for the film's star, Nick Nolte. Although Hollywood collaborations later tapered off, Conroy nonetheless continued to enthrall readers with such bestsellers as 1995's The Beach House and 2009's South of Broad. In using fiction as a means of coming to terms with an often tumultuous and painful past, Conroy allowed millions of readers and moviegoers to do the same, while still finding themselves swept away by the lyrical realism of his tales filled with love, loss and the bonds of friendship. Pat Conroy died of pancreatic cancer on March 4, 2016 at the age of 70.
Born Donald Patrick Conroy on Oct. 26, 1945 in Atlanta, GA, he was the first of seven children born to Frances and Colonel Donald Conroy, a Marine fighter pilot. A career soldier hailing from Chicago, IL, Conroy's father was a stern disciplinarian, later characterized by his son as being an abusive and often violent man, "whose biggest mistake was allowing a novelist to grow up in his home." A native of Georgia, Conroy's mother, known to friends and family as "Peggy," was a lover of art and literature who passed her appreciation along to her oldest child. As a self-described "military brat," Conroy's childhood was a nomadic one, to say the least. By his estimation, Conroy's family moved some 23 times by the time he was 15, with an early stay at California's El Toro Military Base diluting the accent one would have expected from a Southern man. In addition to a growing love of language, Conroy loved basketball, particularly after a momentous game in which his fifth grade team managed to defeat an intimidating team of sixth graders. After years on the move, the family eventually settled in the town of Beaufort, SC, where Conroy attended high school. It was there that the young man encountered one the most influential figures of his young life, an English teacher by the name of Eugene Norris, who introduced Conroy to the works of Thomas Wolfe and encouraged his interest in writing.
Conroy graduated from Beaufort High School in 1963 and at the insistence of his father, enrolled at The Citadel, South Carolina's historic military college. As a young cadet, Conroy excelled in both academics and sports, playing as a starting guard for The Citadel Bulldogs NCAA Division 1 basketball team. Yet despite these achievements, the institutionalized discipline practiced at the military college - at times, in the view of Conroy, crossing over into harassment and racism - reminded him of the abuse he and his family had long endured at the hands of his father. As such, Conroy's time at the school informed his world view and future writings in ways that would soon become apparent. Shortly after graduating from The Citadel in 1967, Conroy began his first serious attempt as an author, penning The Boo, a collection of anecdotes about a beloved instructor he had admired during his time at The Citadel, Lt. Colonel Thomas "The Boo" Courvoise. When no publisher showed interest in the book, the do-it-yourself-minded Conroy eventually took out a loan and self-published The Boo a few years later. It was also during this time that Conroy returned to Beaufort High to teach English at the height of the turbulent Civil Rights Movement. After being rebuked for instituting a black history course by the integration-resistant school administration, an incensed Conroy quit his job and applied for work with the Peace Corps in 1968. Assigned to a teaching position at an elementary school on South Carolina's isolated and impoverished Daufuskie Island later that year, the rebellious Conroy soon found himself at odds with his new employers once again. Having become deeply invested in the underprivileged students he was attempting to reach, Conroy raised money for a field trip after being told the school lacked funds. Viewed as a non-conformist from the start - he refused to administer corporal punishment - Conroy was asked to resign by the end of the school year. He did not and was subsequently fired.
Accompanying Conroy to Daufuskie Island was Barbara Bolling Jones, who he had met while teaching in Beaufort. The recent widow of an Air Force pilot shot down in Vietnam and the mother of two, Jones married Conroy in 1969 and adopted her children. With a pair of failed teaching attempts already under his belt, the 25-year-old Conroy put a career as an educator behind him and focused his energy on his writing. The result was the memoir The Water is Wide in which the fictional island of Yamacraw stood in for Daufuskie, where Conroy began a quixotic effort to combat entrenched racism of the school district. Published in 1972, the breakout novel won Conroy the Humanitarian Award from the National Education Association and was soon adapted into the feature film "Conrack" (1974), starring Jon Voight as Conroy, whose name was pronounced "Conrack" due to the students' unique coastal dialect. Continuing to mine his own past for his literary endeavors, Conroy next delved into even deeper emotional territory with his semi-autobiographical novel, 1976's The Great Santini. The story of hard-nosed fighter pilot Wilbur "Bull" Meecham and the love-hate relationship his often abusive parenting tactics engendered with his oldest son Ben, the book laid bare age old wounds from Conroy's childhood.
While the novel made Conroy a rising star in the publishing world, it also began a painful period of estrangement from members of his family, who viewed it as a betrayal and the airing of the family's dirty laundry. The increased isolation also took a toll on Conroy's marriage, and by 1977, he and Barbara had divorced. Further establishing his name in the minds of the public was the well-received feature film adaptation of "The Great Santini" (1979), with revered actor Robert Duvall playing the titular patriarch and Michael O'Keefe as Ben. For their work in the film, both actors garnered Academy Award nominations. Directly on the heels of this latest cinematic milestone was Conroy's second fiction novel The Lords of Discipline (1980), although once again, the source material for the book was readily apparent to anyone who knew Conroy's past. Set at the fictional Carolina Military Institute, the novel follows Cadet Will McLean as he struggles with the inherent brutality of the school's pledge system and uncovers a dangerous secret society within the student body. Although a work of fiction, many alumni from The Citadel took offense at the book, as they felt it depicted their alma mater in an unflattering light. Married for a second time in 1981 to Lenore Gurewitz - a woman the author would later describe as "the agent of my great passion and my even greater ruin" - Conroy later enjoyed further notoriety when "The Lords of Discipline" (1983) was adapted for the screen. Starring David Keith as McLean, it placed the focus on the controversial admittance of the Institute's first African-American student, and McLean's confrontation with the malevolent brotherhood known as "The Ten."
In a recurring theme throughout his life, Conroy's professional accomplishments were often marred by personal tragedy. Such was the case when the author's beloved mother Peggy died of leukemia in 1984 at the age of 59. And while his earlier novels had garnered considerable praise and been translated to film, none of the books had sold in blockbuster numbers. That all changed with the release of The Prince of Tides in 1986. An intricately-woven story that spanned a lifetime, it begins with out-of-work teacher Tom Wingo traveling to New York City at the request of his suicidal sister's psychiatrist. As he and Dr. Lowenstein delve into the Wingo family's harrowing past in an effort to help his troubled sibling, Tom forms a deep personal bond with the attractive doctor and begins a much needed healing process of his own. An instant New York Times bestseller, it vaulted Conroy into the pantheon of great modern American storytellers. Conroy later received his first screenwriting credit for "Unconquered" (CBS, 1989), a based-on-fact story of the Civil Rights Movement starring Peter Coyote and Dermott Mulroney as a father and son combating racial intolerance despite pressure from their Southern community.
Conroy's best regarded novel soon became his most successful film adaptation when "The Prince of Tides" (1991) was brought to life by actress-director-producer Barbara Streisand. Starring Nick Nolte as Tom and Streisand as Dr. Lowenstein and co-scripted by Conroy and Becky Johnston, the film was a box-office smash, garnering Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. For his gut-wrenching portrayal of Tom Wingo, Nolte earned a Best Actor nomination. Once again, highs were tempered by a series of lows, when in 1994, Conroy's younger brother Tom, who had long suffered from mental illness, committed suicide. The following year, which saw the publication of Conroy's latest bestseller The Beach House, also marked the demise of his second marriage. The cycle continued in 1997 when Conroy married successful author Cassandra King in 1997, only to lose his father, with whom he had reconciled in recent years, to colon cancer the following year. Early in the new millennium, Conroy returned to this days as a basketball player at the Citadel with the memoir My Losing Season in 2002. Four years later, a more straightforward adaptation of his early memoir "The Water is Wide" (CBS, 2006) aired with actor Jeff Hephner playing the young, idealistic Conroy. His next novel of family bonds and personal healing, South of Broad, was published in 2009, the same year Conroy was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. Ending the decade, the author released 2010's, My Reading Life. Part memoir, part "best of" list, it chronicled Conroy's lifelong love of literature and the profound impact certain authors had on his life. Conroy's final published work during his lifetime was the memoir The Death of Santini, exploring his conflicted feelings following the death of his father, the inspiration for one of his best-known characters. Pat Concroy died of pancreatic cancer on March 4, 2016 in Beaufort, South Carolina. He was 70 years old.
By Bryce P. Coleman
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