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Pat Conroy Literary Festival 2017 : The Transformative Power of Education

Story By Maura Connelly, Pat Conroy Literacy Center

The second annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival will be held October 19 -22 at USCB’s Center for the Arts, celebrating the transformative power of education. Few people embody this theme with as much passion and grace as educator Dr. William Dufford. Teacher. Coach. Principal. Superintendent. He has assumed all of these mantles in varied venues: classrooms; playing fields; school hallways. It was his role as mentor  that took on a mythical quality for so many of his students, especially his years  at Beaufort High School in the early 1960s. For the students of the era, these were the “Camelot” years. They also included the arrival of one of BHS’s most famous graduates, Pat Conroy.

     Pat Conroy arrived in Beaufort in 1960 at the age of 15, and entered BHS for what would be his junior and senior years. He came to the lowcountry as an insecure and fragile young man, but he would graduate a confident citizen and as president of his class. After years of parochial schooling and rigid classrooms, Pat had finally arrived at a school that welcomed him and fostered his burgeoning literary interests. And at the center of this new universe was principal Bill Dufford. “I was in the middle of a childhood being raised by a father I didn’t admire. In a desperate way, I needed the guidance of someone who could show me another way of becoming a man. It was sometime during that year when I decided I would become the kind of man that a whole town could respect and honor and fall in love with – the way Beaufort did when Bill Dufford came to town to teach and shape and turn their children into the best citizens they could be,” wrote Conroy in the essay “The Summer I Met My First Great Man” appearing in A Lowcountry Heart and first delivered as an awards ceremony introduction for Dr. Dufford.

     Pat graduated from Beaufort High School as president of his class, “Best All Around,” a member of student council, the literary magazine, and the National Honor Society. He was also voted Mr. Congeniality. It was Bill Dufford who shaped and guided his new world, the man who held the torch for Pat.  “When you went to Bill Dufford’s school, the one thing you knew was that you were one of his kids, and…[that] you had a responsibility to your school because it was your community, your part of the world,” Conroy told a group of USC students in a 1995 address. “I never saw anyone get this across better. And I went into teaching because of Bill Dufford, because he had convinced me that there was no way a human being could live upon this earth and do anything better than to teach young people. It affected me and I’m simply one of the hundreds it affected.”

     And Pat did go on to teach, emulating many of his BHS mentors. After graduating high school, Pat went to college at the Citadel, graduating in 1967. He taught for two years at BHS before his storied year as the first white school teacher on Dafauskie Island, which became the inspiration for his book The Water Is Wide. In the book, Pat describes teaching as a noble endeavor and shares Dufford’s view on education “as holy a profession as the priesthood. It was one of his greatest gifts that he [Dufford] could convey his sense of mission about education to the kids who came under his jurisdiction. A whole tribe of us went into teaching because of his influence.”

     Pat was just one of thousands of students who came under Bill Dufford’s influence. Leighton Cubbage, another former student of Dufford’s in Sumter, describes Dufford’s “raw leadership” in Dufford’s forthcoming memoir, My Tour Through the Asylum: A Southern Integrationist’s Memoir, in collaboration(see sidebar). “Dufford’s attitude [about school] of joy, happiness, love, and inclusivity is what makes organizations work best. That’s the right type of fuel to drive any culture. People can talk about that ideal inside a church or in a pew, but there’s a guy who had the courage to do it in a school.”

     The best summation of Dr. Dufford’s passion for the empowerment of education, the passion for teaching, and the role of surrogate parenting also comes from Pat Conroy, by way of a letter written to Dufford in the summer of 1968 and rediscovered in October 2016. “Everything I have done since leaving Beaufort has been a reflection of the summer I spent with you digging those damn ditches and painting those damn bookcases. I have never understood the dynamics of hero worship – maybe it was the discovery of the father I never had as a youth and finally found in you, a father who was not only stern but tender, a father of both the storm and the sun. It is important for you to know this effect you have had and I believe you know it but in the shortness and horrible brevity of life I want to get everything said – everything. This is immortality. For what I have learned from you I will pass on, and it will be passed on, and it will be passed on and passed on.”

     William Dufford will make two appearances at this year’s Pat Conroy Literary Festival. He will join others from Pat’s BHS days in a panel discussion on  Thursday, October 19, 5:30 – 6:30 at Beaufort Middle School (2501 Mossy Oaks Road).  He will also be in conversation with another former BHS student, attorney Carl B Epps III, at USCB’s Center for the Arts on Saturday, October 21, 6:15 – 7:15 pm, following the festival’s performance of the musical Conrack. Following both events, Dr. Dufford will sign copies of My Tour Through the Asylum: A Southern Integrationist’s Memoir.

William Dufford, now retired, served as a school principal in Georgetown, Beaufort and Sumter and later as the superintendent of schools in York. He also served as an educational consultant for the Boston school system and as the director of field services for the University of South Carolina Center for Integrated Education. Dufford has been recognized with the South Carolina Governor’s Award in the Humanities and the South Carolina Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor. He remains actively involved in Newberry College’s annual Dufford Diversity and Inclusiveness Week and in the Newberry Opera House’s Dufford Center for Cultural Diversity.

     The Pat Conroy Literary Festival is the signature event of the Pat Conroy Literary Center, presented in partnership with the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts. For Tickets: 843.521.4145 or www.patconroyliteraryfestival.org uscbcenterforthearts.com

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