BUILDING ON A LITERARY LEGACY

BY BILL THOMPSON

LIfestyleProfileVer2-Image-1BEAUFORT, S.C.—In what has become a typical afternoon at the Pat Conroy Literary Center, a steady caravan of literary pilgrims and well-wishers amble through the Museum That Words Built, its rooms artfully arrayed with personal effects and memorabilia of a celebrated writing life.

Jonathan Haupt looks on with satisfaction. In a surprisingly brief time, the Center has grown from an ambitious concept into a functioning reality, thanks in no small measure to the imagination and managerial skills of its director, former chief of The University of South Carolina Press and the man best suited to sustaining a legacy. And building on it.

Haupt is one of only two full-time staff, so he is certainly not doing this alone. The director’s office may be his, the artifacts Conroy’s, but the Center and its programs are very much a collaborative effort on the part of many.

That effort is marshaling momentum. Supporting the literary arts year-round means presenting exhibitions drawn from the author’s writing career, staging workshops, organizing book group discussions, sponsoring mentorship programs, hosting appearances by local and visiting writers, developing a global online outreach, and honoring the pivotal role of educators. All this, plus its signature event, the annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival in October.

What are the principal goals of the Center?
The Conroy Center is dedicated to continuing not only Pat’s legacy as a writer, but as a teacher, so there’s an echo of his generous spirit as an educator and mentor in everything we do. We can’t write another word for Pat. But we can continue to teach in a way that honors him and inspires new generations of writers and readers.

Does the Center reflect what Pat might have wished?
Pat had no active role in developing the Literary Center, but his generosity with his readers and his fellow writers, the values he advocated in his writing and the questions he asked inform everything we do. I don’t know that Pat ever wished for anything specifically like the Conroy Center, but it is certainly reflective of how he interacted with readers and writers, treasuring and encouraging both. Our programming is always rooted in an educational experience, honoring Pat as teacher.

The Center inhabits a fine “four-over-four” historic home on Charles Street. Would you describe its contents? We have two gallery rooms in the Center that include pieces from Pat’s personal collections, family collections and the Pat Conroy Archive. And while the center has many charms, it is not large enough to also accommodate programming. Those spaces we’ve found through the support of such community partners as the Beaufort County Library, USC Beaufort, the Technical College of the Lowcountry, the Santa Elena Foundation, Wells Fargo and Grace Chapel.

How will the development of the Center further his legacy?
Pat’s legacy as a writer is already firmly secured by the dozen books he wrote. I say that as a student of the literary canon with a keen awareness of Pat’s uncanny ability to extract the universal from the personal and regional, and to do so in such a powerfully lyrical way. The legacy that the Center fosters, then, isn’t so much Pat as writer as it is Pat as teacher. And ultimately that was what drove him to be a writer. It was an act of teaching for him.

You and Pat were quite close. You must feel a great responsibility toward him and his wife, novelist Cassandra King.
Pat’s faith in me was transformative, and it’s a debt I can never repay to him, but I can see that those lessons are passed on through what we now do at the Center in Pat’s honor. Yes, I certainly feel a great responsibility to Pat, Cassandra, and to all the Conroy siblings, daughters, and seemingly endless relations beyond. But it’s a responsibility rooted in the words with which Pat closed every letter, “great love.”

What ideas, projects and events have you most enthused?
We’ve been so fortunate to have as many kinds of programs underway as well and as quickly as we do. Our monthly Visiting Writers Series has proven to be a wonderful gift to the community. Looking ahead, I’m very excited to begin our oral history documentary project with some of Pat’s former students from Daufuskie Island. The Barbra Streisand Foundation has generously offered a grant in support of this project. And then there’s the second annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival.

What are the challenges the Center will face?
Our chief challenge is going to be sustainable funding, particularly in a national environment that can be less and less supportive of the arts and humanities. We have a donor base of nearly 800 individuals and organizations, and they have been incredibly supportive in getting us started.

How have the Center and its programs been received?
We’ve welcomed literary pilgrims from all over the country and increasingly from all over the world who have told us that they’ve come to Beaufort specifically because of Pat Conroy. It’s been incredible to get to know them and to see what a powerful experience visiting the Conroy Center can be for so many. Likewise, the programs have garnered amazing responses for our local community.

What does Beaufort mean to you?
The beauty of this magical place that was both home and muse to Pat Conroy is real and it never stops being breathtaking. There’s no place I’d rather be, and nothing I’d rather be doing than continuing Pat’s work as mentor and advocate for readers and writers alike, in the Lowcountry and well beyond it. I’d much rather be doing all of this with Pat, of course, but I can at least do it for him.

Bill Thompson covers the arts, film and books.