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My Year with Pat Conroy

Guest Piece by Libby Pataki

Beaufort High School, South Carolina: How could I have known in the autumn of 1967, my senior year in high school, that the stage was set for perhaps the quirkiest, most joyful and definitely the most interesting friendship that I had ever had up to that moment?

I was entering my senior year of high school and was not yet 18. I had just moved from Paris, France, with my large family and my father had just retired from a long career as an engineer in the US Army. We were renting a house on the as-yet-undeveloped Hilton Head Island. I was utterly lost in the South. I’d entered as a senior in a public high school where the kids had known one another their entire lives—I’d lived everywhere from Korea to Washington State to rural France, but my family was never anywhere for more than two consecutive years.

How well I remember walking into the English classroom on the first day. Pat Conroy, “Mr. Conroy” to us students, had just graduated from the prestigious military academy, The Citadel , otherwise known as The Military College of South Carolina. He was a new 21 and his entire working life up until that moment consisted of a short retreat on Gullah Island off the coast of South Carolina teaching small children who communicated in a dialect of Afro-Seminole Creole how to speak English. The children called him ‘Conrack,’ an affectionate but somewhat mocking nickname that, he informed us, would be the title of his first book.

But back to our stage, and our storyteller.

Mr. Conroy was my English teacher every day that year, and to my delight, also my Psychology teacher twice a week (anyone who has read “The Great Santini” can see the irony and humor in that situation). To be perfectly frank, aside from assigning us the occasional reading, quiz or test, Mr. Conroy spent not one minute that entire year actually discussing English or Psychology. Mr. Conroy just had too many books to discuss, and they were all in his head.

IMG_4938We were his guinea pigs, his outlet, his test audience providing his stage, and he was our raconteur. And we loved every second of it. Aside from learning about The Citadel, the roots of Gullah and so many details of his emotionally charged upbringing, I learned from Mr. Conroy what it means to laugh so hard that it hurts, what it means to wake up and, though exhausted, actually relish going to class at 7:30 AM after an hour long drive through the Low Country.

We were both the outsiders in this strange world of Beaufort High. He was the eldest of seven in a military family. I was also in a military family and lost in the shuffle somewhere in the middle of six siblings. We both had borderline authoritarian fathers (he would hardly refer to his as ‘borderline’ at the time, his chosen word would have been ‘psychotic’) who saw the world in black and white and who were distant, strict (most notably with their sons), and oblivious to the beauty of their wives’ spirits and generosity—not to mention sacrifices as military wives.

I was coming in cold from five years in France where my father was the military attaché at the U.S. Embassy. He was coming into the classroom straight from The Citadel, an environment he loathed, much as he appeared to loathe his father’s very existence. These powerful emotions were foremost and fresh in his mind and it came as no surprise to me that after “Conrack,” his first book was “The Great Santini,” based on his childhood and distaste for all things paternal and military.

That we “found each other” would be presumptuous and overstating. There was, after all, a hierarchy here, and Mr. Conroy was extremely respectful and professional at all times. He was also almost pathologically shy. His had not been the usual coming of age. His father was “The Great Santini” after all, and hadn’t seen much point in a well-rounded, co-educational upbringing for his brood.

What we had was merely a lot in common. Though he was the teacher and I was the student, a mere three years separated us in age. We were both isolated—newcomers to this unique Southern setting, outsiders in the halls of that school, and both lonely in our own ways. I was marking time until I could get back to Paris and he was marking time until he could exit the high school setting and begin penning the brilliant stories in his head, to which we were fortuitously witness. I knew at the time that he, like me, would move far away from that classroom. His stories were simply too incredible, or rather, the way in which he told them was too incredible. Did I know, then, that I was in the presence of one of the great storytellers? Yes, I did.

I graduated at the end of that year and headed back, without my family, to Paris, where I began the American University in Paris. Mr. Conroy went his way, telling me that he would look me up if he ever came to Paris. I began to see his name popping up in bookstores, in literary circles, in the news. I do remember very clearly when “Prince of Tides” was made into a movie—I didn’t hear Nick Nolte delivering those lines, I heard Mr. Conroy.

Thirty years later when my husband George was elected Governor of New York, I remember seeing that Pat Conroy, by now the famous Pat Conroy, was coming to give a lecture on his most recent book, “Beach Music.” I sent him a letter expressing how much I had enjoyed his books over the years. I began my letter to him by saying “You probably don’t remember me but…”

His reply came back: “Dearest Libby, I most certainly do remember you.”

I didn’t learn that senior year about The Odyssey or Jane Eyre or any of the other books in the canon of the high school English class. But I sat in the front row listening to Pat Conroy talking about his father, his summer nights in the Low Country, how much he loved his mother, and his deepest and abiding love for all things Southern. That was an education that I accepted gladly.

Libby Pataki is the former First Lady of New York and the wife of former New York Governor George Pataki. She is the author’s mother.

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