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March 8, 2016

Hey Out There: In Remembrance and Appreciation of Pat Conroy

In a deeply felt blow to the American contemporary canon, one of the champion authors of 20th-century Southern literature has passed away. Pat Conroy, author of the seminal THE PRINCE OF TIDES and THE GREAT SANTINI, was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Early Saturday morning, his Facebook page notified us that he “left this world Friday, March 4, 2016...surrounded by his family and friends in his Beaufort home overlooking the marshes he so loved.”

Conroy’s writing indulges in his profound affection for his adoptive homeland, the southern landscape and the fraught magic of the Low Country. His language sprawls, sensory and immersive, as do the intricate plots of his novels. Conroy’s childhood and early life were complicated by his transient military brat upbringing. He attended 11 schools before he was 15, thus his affinity for Beaufort, South Carolina, succeeded a youth entangled with unbelonging, rendering his relationship with the landscape all the more profound. Conroy’s father, a US Marine Corps pilot, also had a history of physical and emotional abuse towards his children. Conroy translated the pain of his young adulthood into works of fiction that have been lauded for their raw emotionality and verbose intensity, masterful literary feats that will long be remembered.

He was outspoken about the complexities of military life and the lives of military families. During his years as a teacher in the ’60s and ’70s, he advocated for the rights of underprivileged students, and challenged institutionalized racism and the academic structures of corporal punishment.

Conroy’s Facebook page (he opened almost every post with "Hey out there") and website guestbook brim with the grief and respects of his many admirers. Jade Caldwell writes, in a fitting tribute: “Surely the Low Country skies must have wept Friday at the tremendous loss of this poet, this sculptor of words, this architect of language. You offered the world a remarkable gift as you chronicled your own exploration of familial devastation and your journey towards repair, towards rebuilding.... Pat, you have given me a multitude of reminders of the ways that nature offers us a healing balm. I am forever grateful to the universe for the gift of your soul.”

Other beloved writers also took to social media to publicly celebrate his name and mourn his loss, including Patricia Cornwell and Sarah Dessen.

The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) is paying tribute by renaming the SIBA Book Awards. This has been in the works since Conroy turned 70 last October, and beginning this year, the awards will now be known as the Pat Conroy Prize. At least for 2016, all categories will bear the name of a Conroy book: “The Great Santini Fiction Prize,” “The Water is Wide History and Life Stories Prize,” “The Prince of Tides Literary Prize,” “The Pat Conroy Cookbook Prize,” etc. Conroy himself won the SIBA Book of the Year Award in 2003.

Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers, that the mind can never break off from the journey.” Here’s to you, Mr. Conroy. Let your voyage be not ended, and instead let it begin anew every time a reader revisits your works. You have transported so many minds and hearts, and have given authority to voices that truly need it. Your words and legacy shall endure.