Notes on Pat Conroy’s 70th Birthday Celebration in Beaufort, South Carolina

It’s a long way from Southern California to Beaufort, South Carolina, but there was only one way to attend my favorite author’s 70th birthday celebration. In my mind, Pat Conroy is the king of American literary letters; his gift of lyrical language and sense of place is unparalleled, and I’d have rather flown across the country to meet him than anyone else in the world. Oh, I hemmed and hawed and weighed and measured to exhaustive degrees before I remembered life is short and I should grab onto its once in a lifetime opportunities with both fists. So I booked my passage and accommodation, bought my event tickets online, and attended what was billed as the University of South Carolina’s “Pat Conroy at 70” celebration. It was a three day celebration of Conroy’s work, beginning with the movie screening of “The Great Santini” followed by two days of panel discussions from writers touched and influenced by Conroy’s rarified way with language and prose, and ending with a birthday cake the shape of the shrimp boat “The Miss Lila,” featured in Conroy’s masterpiece, “The Prince of Tides.”
As a writer who hails from the South, I was in my element, yet hadn’t expected to feel this way. All around me were vibrant, chatty book lovers and Southern writers so lit with joy and enthusiasm at the thrill of simply being in this literary icon’s presence that it was like being in an ecstatic beehive with a jury of my peers. In this day and age of instant gratification and technological immediacy, book lovers are an esoteric lot, but you wouldn’t have thought this in the crowd assembled to celebrate Pat Conroy; it wouldn’t have crossed your mind that there was anything else going on in the world outside of the event, and if it had, it wouldn’t have mattered. Within the walls of the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts, an overarching spirit of what I can only describe as pure love radiated from pillar to post, connecting each person one to the next in an inclusive, tribal embrace. And there in the midst sauntered Pat Conroy, humble, bemused, self-effacing, and accessible, comporting himself as if three hundred of his closest friends had gathered in his living room.
The thing about book people is nothing else lights their fire in quite the same way as a good book. A good book opens interior doors, calls things by name, and grants permission for the reader to take the risk of feeling outside of the parameters of self-consciousness and vulnerability. A good book tells us we are not alone in this world, that it’s okay to be human, and that there is safety in numbers. I think this is why so many flocked to bask in the glow of Conroy: to many he is the bearer of the cross; the keeper of the literary flame; the way shower who has mastered the art of storytelling in such a way that it suggests there is rhyme and reason to this business of living.
What struck me the most about Pat Conroy is his humility. He is the kind of guy who is baffled by his own impact. He possessed a kind of wide-eyed, child-like wonder at the realization that so many came to attend a three-day conference in his honor. And because he is sincerely interested in writers and what they have to say, he sat in the audience of every panel discussion with rapt attention, as if it were he who had something to learn from the authors who read from their works and expounded on his virtues.
I can’t recall what I expected from the weekend celebration of Pat Conroy’s life, for it has now been supplanted by what actually transpired. All I remember was the demanding, inexplicable lure of wanting to be a part of it because I sensed, in some dramatic fashion, that there would be something for me to take away, to pocket in the archives of my own literary journey that I would value forever. And I will. I will value forever the fact that Pat Conroy has not only shown me what is possible with the written word, but what is possible should one find themselves with the distinction of wearing the mantle of fame and acclaim. Pat Conroy exudes docile grace and a generosity of spirit that takes him outside of himself and into the arena of an inclusive, generous camaraderie with all people. He stands not only as an example of how to comport oneself as a writer, but as an example of dignity and decency in how to be a human being.

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