Pat Conroy, the Southern novelist and storyteller, was buried from St. Peter Catholic Church in Beaufort, S.C., surrounded by almost 1,200 mourners. Friends carried his unadorned casket into the sanctuary as a soloist sang “The Water is Wide,” which is also the title of the memoir that won him a 1973 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
It sprang from his year teaching in a two-room schoolhouse on Duafuskie Island, off the South Carolina coast. Conroy’s students spoke Gullah, a local dialect, and had little experience beyond their isolated, impoverished home. The writer said his unorthodox approach to teaching – including a refusal to use corporal punishment – led the superintendent to fire him after a single year. “The Water is Wide” grew from Conroy’s frustration with the racism and poverty he witnessed.
He intended to self-publish, but after a friend urged him to send his manuscript to the New York agent Julian Bach, Conroy got a phone call saying Houghton Mifflin was offering $7,500 for the book. According to the New York Times, the writer was unfamiliar with the concept of a publisher’s advance and replied that he could probably get the book printed more cheaply in Beaufort. “Pat, you do understand, they pay you,” Bach is quoted as responding.
“The Water is Wide” became a 1974 film starring Jon Voight, retitled “Conrack,” the first of four Conroy novels converted to movies. The best known are “The Great Santini,” a portrait of a sadistic father and fighter pilot, and “The Prince of Tides,” which cemented his fame.
When he died of pancreatic cancer March 4, 2016, Conroy was 70, the definitive chronicler of the South Carolina Lowcountry. He had sold more than 20 million copies of his books.
Their largely autobiographic content often distressed his family, as it did the administration of The Citadel, the military school that was Conroy’s alma mater and another rich source of his fiction. But the novelist and the school reconciled, and Conroy gave the commencement speech in 2001. He invited the graduates to attend his funeral and 30 did so. Here is what Conroy said:
“Usually I tell graduation classes I want them to think of me on their 40th birthday, but I’ve got something else I want to do for y’all, because I’m so moved at what you’ve done for me. I’d like to invite each one of you in the Class of 2001 to my funeral. I mean that. I will not be having a good day that day but 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.
Because I want you to know how swift time is. There is nothing as swift, nothing. 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.’”