Story by Maura Connelly
The Pat Conroy Literary Center first opened its doors in October 2016 in a historic home located on Charles Street. It serves as a living legacy to the literary giant’s timeless body of work, to his devotion to his readers, and to his generous inspiration to his fellow writers.
Pat Conroy was a literary celebrity “who used his fame to champion other writers and causes that mattered to him,” says Jonathan Haupt, executive director of the Conroy Center.
The Center’s original home was made possible by the Keyserling family and suited the young organization’s initial endeavors as a site for education and interpretation, welcoming some 2,000 literary pilgrims from 38 states and 9 countries in 2017. But as the Conroy Center’s exhibitions and programming continued to grow in scope and significance, the need developed for a larger venue with the capacity to host workshops and lectures, book club gatherings, temporary exhibitions, and other events to the benefit of readers and writers alike with an emphasis on teaching.
Aware of the Conroy Center’s growing pains, philanthropic developer Dick Stewart and the Beaufort Inn offered the first floor at the former site of the BB&T building at 905 Port Republic Street. Three times larger than the Center’s original home, with handicap accessibility and more parking, the space accommodates larger groups of visitors with the capacity for more educational programs and touring exhibitions. The new space became immediate reminiscent of one of Pat’s great loves: the haven of a library. As Tim Conroy, Pat’s brother and a poet, said, “Pat would love this! Shelves waiting to be filled. It’s a library!”
Most visitors enter the Conroy Center from the Port Republic Street entrance, and the first sense one has is of entering a welcoming library. A small, cozy nook with two rockers and four bookcases filled with some of Pat’s books, sits in one corner. On the other side of the room are gift shop shelves stocked with copies of all of Pat’s books as well as Cassandra King Conroy’s, including the works of other authors mentored and empowered by Pat, and an inviting selection of visual art pieces also inspired by Pat’s writings.
The rest of the Center is dedicated to pivotal periods in Pat’s life, whether personal or professional. There is The Great Santini corner where his father’s flight jacket is on display along with a case of his military medals and other Santini memorabilia. One wall displays large photographs of his two years as a student at Beaufort High School, his four years at the Citadel, and his storied year of teaching on Daufuskie Island, on which The Water Is Wide is based.
And one entire room has been curated to evoke Pat’s Fripp Island writing room with his large writing desk and chair, and a huge mural created by artist Aki Kato that beautifully renders Pat’s beloved lowcountry.
The Conroy Center would not be complete without an opportunity for writerly reflection: in this case, a door of honor, made by Cassandra’s son, Jason, where visitors can pay their respects and leave their notes of remembrance.
Some come to the Conroy Center with a specific task in mind, others wander in out of curiosity, but most leave with a sense of awe. Will Balk, lead docent who has volunteered at the Center since its inception, states it most clearly when he recalls a recent visit to the new space:
“Last Saturday was one of those unique days when the few visitors who came were exceptional in what they experienced here and how grateful they were for the tour. One super couple from Charleston (he had never heard of Pat Conroy before the downtown tour they took, although she did know of him) expected to see some of Pat’s books, maybe a few photos, and they’d leave a little more aware of Pat. Instead, we took nearly an hour exploring Pat’s life, his family, his writing, his pain and his joy. The husband, a veteran now in nursing school, thinks he wants to write about his life (he’s climbed the Himalayas, he’s sailed the seas, he’s done things few of us would even dream of), but he never thought about other people’s writing as something to learn from and be inspired by. Now they are determined to read and learn from Pat, in particular, and from other writers about seeing and portraying a world. Just amazing!”
The nonprofit Pat Conroy Literary Center is South Carolina’s first affiliate of the American Writer’s Museum and second American Library Association Literary Landmark. To learn more about the Conroy Center’s year-round educational programs for readers and writers, including the annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival, please visit www.patconroliterarycenter.org
The Pat Conroy Literary Center is open and free to the public, Thursdays through Sundays from noon to 4:00 pm.