Jonathan gave thanks to the Conroy Center’s board of directors and the Conroy family for entrusting him with that responsibility saying, “The Center is striving to fill in that enormous Conroy-shaped hole in all of our lives and hearts. To play my part in that effort, in honor of my friend and my mentor, is more that an opportunity—it’s a calling…Pat Conroy’s lowcountry heart was big enough to include all of us. As a teacher, a mentor and an advocate, he wanted everyone to find her or his true potential. It’s in that spirit that the Center will take up our mission to continue Pat’s legacy of generosity with readers and writers alike, in and beyond our home here in Beaufort.”
I met Jonathan a year earlier on October 31, 2015 at Pat Conroy’s 70th birthday party hosted by Beaufort History Museum in the courtyard of the historic Arsenal. That event was truly a celebration of Beaufort’s beloved Prince of Tides, with 350 of Pat’s family, friends, and fans gathering from near and far to honor him and his lifetime of work. The birthday celebration was one of the highlights of the multi-day Pat Conroy at 70 Festival (a literary event also encompassing a book festival, writers conference, and film festival). It was an impressive literary festival created and co-chaired by Jonathan, then the Director of the University of South Carolina Press.
Those attending the festival in October 2015 to celebrate Pat Conroy’s life could not know that four months later they would be mourning him. Just days after Conroy’s death on March 4, 2016, his literary agent and long-time friend Marly Rusoff proposed the idea for a Pat Conroy Literary Center as a legacy to Pat. Plans to create the Literary Center began to unfold immediately with the blessing of Pat’s widow Cassandra King. Jonathan remade the original festival he had created to celebrate Pat’s life at 70, as the Pat Conroy Literary Festival—now the Conroy Center’s signature annual event. At the close of that inaugural Literary Festival in October 2016, Jonathan was named the first Executive Director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center.
Born in Kentucky, Jonathan grew up in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois on Lake Michigan. When he was 17 his family moved to Martin, Tennessee, home of the University of Tennessee at Martin, where he earned undergrad degrees in English and history. During college, he also served as the assistant director at the campus museum. Jonathan attended graduate school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale where he earned his masters degree in English. In 1999, after grad school, he took a marketing position with Southern Illinois University Press.
There he met Lisa Bayer, a mentor and friend with whom he’s had a friendly competition over the years—which one of them would achieve the position of director of a university press first? Jonathan joined the University of South Carolina Press in 2004 in a marketing capacity and over time rose to the positions of assistant director for sales and marketing and interim director, before being named Director of the USC Press in 2011. He laughed as he recalled that his first day as Director of the USC Press was also Lisa Bayer’s first day as Director of the University of Georgia Press—so their competition ended in a tie!
Jonathan says that he and his wife Lorene welcomed the opportunity to move to Beaufort in 2016 when he was named Director of the Conroy Center. “We visited Beaufort for years with USC Press events before we moved here, and it has always felt like home to us.” Under Jonathan’s leadership as Director, USC Press was honored with a South Carolina Governors Award in the Humanities, given in recognition of the Press’ commitment to education through humanities publishing. In 2013, he established the Press’ acclaimed Story River Books fiction imprint, edited by the late Pat Conroy and named by Garden & Gun magazine as one of the top 10 things to love about the South. He has also presented at book festivals, writers conferences, and library conferences on topics of small press and university press publishing, literary arts partnerships, and the writing and teaching life of Pat Conroy.
Jonathan met Pat Conroy when he started at USC Press in marketing. “I’d call Pat to ask for endorsements for books we were publishing,” he says. “When I became Director of USC Press and Pat realized that I wanted to get serious about publishing fiction, poetry, and children’s and young adult books, and about sharing the stories of the South with readers in a way which could empower them and expand their viewpoints, Pat volunteered to become editor at large for Story River Books. He became our tribal elder.”
“Pat Conroy was a friend and mentor to me and so many writers,” says Jonathan. “Pat wrote about the teachers in his life, like his high school teacher Gene Norris, who recognized Pat’s untapped potential as a writer. Pat did the same for me—he had a way of bringing out a sense of ambition, purpose and responsibility in me that I didn’t know I had,” he explains.
“Pat knew that he could use his fame as a way to champion other writers and causes that mattered to him. He used it as a teaching tool and I want to continue that in my role as Director of the Conroy Center,” Jonathan states.
Jonathan explains that the greatest challenge for the Pat Conroy Literary Center is sustaining the Center’s work—doing it well and supporting its programs through fundraising and grants. “We’re here to continue in the same generous spirit as Pat. Pat Conroy was always a teacher and mentor. Writing became a form of teaching for him, and love and teaching were interconnected; so for Pat, writing was a form of love.”
When asked about the Center’s accomplishments that he is most proud of, Jonathan answered, “That’s a difficult question because we’ve done so much so quickly—there’s not one thing in particular. I’m proud of the way that the Conroy Center’s board, docents and volunteers all work together to create a diverse calendar of events, programs and classes that make such a positive impact on the lives of writers and readers. We’ve created a tapestry of interconnected events that are all part of one still-unfolding story.”
On September 18, the book Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy was published, featuring “an illuminating collection of essays honoring the literary legacy of Pat Conroy” by 67 contributing writers. Among those writers are Rick Bragg and Kathleen Parker, both Pulitzer Prize winners (who will be featured at this November’s third annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival). The new book was edited by Jonathan and novelist Nicole Seitz, and published by Lisa Bayer, Jonathan’s first publishing mentor. Royalties from the book sales support the educational mission of the Conroy Center.
After two years at the Center’s location on Charles Street in an historic home, Jonathan says he’s excited that the Conroy Center is moving to a space three times larger at 905 Port Republic Street, the former site of the BB&T Bank. The new space will accommodate larger groups, touring exhibits, and more educational programs. The Center’s new location will open on October 5, coinciding with Shrimp Festival weekend and the second annual Lowcountry Book Club Convention on October 6.
The Conroy Center will present the third annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival, in partnership with the USCB Center for the Arts, this November 1–4. The festival’s theme will be Celebrating the Foundations of Faith, Family & Friendship. “We see those topics as the foundation of Pat’s life and writing,” Jonathan explains. “We are fortunate that 24 of the 67 contributing writers for Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy will participate in this year’s festival, many teaching workshops or giving lectures. All 24 will also take part in a dinner on Friday, November 2. If you attend the dinner, you’re guaranteed to hear some good stories about Pat Conroy!”