- Bo Emerson The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The second annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival begins this weekend in Beaufort, S.C., and the event has grown in time and scope.
“We’ve expanded the footprint,” said Jonathan Haupt, founding director of the festival. This year events at the gathering will spread over four days, and it will spotlight not only the regional writers who Conroy championed but also “the theme of the transformative power of education.”
Conroy, who died last year, began his adult life as a teacher at a remote school on Daufuskie Island, off the South Carolina coast, an experience documented in his non-fiction book “The Water is Wide.” He soon became a novelist, but he celebrated teachers throughout his writing career, making them into such durable characters as Tom Wingo in “The Prince of Tides.”
Conroy also spoke frequently about the impact that teachers had on his growth as a writer, starting with Eugene Norris, his English teacher at Beaufort High School.
“In 1961 I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life,” he wrote in a 2007 letter to the editor of the Charleston Gazette.
Conroy’s voracious reading, spurred by teachers from Norris on, introduced him to the world. “I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give,” he wrote.
The oldest child of a Marine aviator, Conroy grew up a military brat, moving from town to town, but his family settled in Beaufort during his last two years in high school. That town, and the South Carolina low country, would become the backdrop for almost every story the aspiring novelist would eventually write.
The first of his novels, “The Great Santini,” about a high school boy in Beaufort struggling to come to terms with his overbearing father, was published in 1976. In 2013, Conroy returned to Beaufort with “The Death of Santini,” a non-fiction account of his troubled relationship with his own father, Col. Don Conroy.
When Conroy arrived in Beaufort as a callow teenager, he was taken in hand by the high school principal William E. Dufford. Now 92, Dufford has written a memoir of those tumultuous years. Dufford will discuss “My Tour through the Asylum: A Southern Integrationist’s Memoir,” on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 7:15 p.m. He will speak in conversation with his former student, attorney Carl B. Epps III, at the USC Beaufort Center for the Arts, 801 Carteret Street.
Conroy’s own students, Sallie Ann Robinson and Valerie Sayers, will also appear at the festival. The festival will include a performance of the musical “Conrack,” based on “The Water is Wide,” screenings of movies, including the 1983 movie version of “Lords of Discipline,” and the 50th reunion of some of Conroy’s Citadel classmates from the class of 1967.
In 2014 Conroy became editor-at-large for Story River Press, an imprint of the University of South Carolina Press, intended to support writers and stories from the region. Many of the writers published by that imprint show the influence of Conroy’s expansive work and his instinct to nurture other artists.
“He only taught for three years, but he never stopped being a teacher,” said Haupt.
Haupt said events at the festival range from free to $45. A $195 weekend pass will provide entry to very event, with the exception of the writer’s workshops.