Beaufort grabbed Pat Conroy when he crossed the Whale Branch bridge and pointed him to the marsh, a good friend of the author said at Conroy’s funeral Tuesday morning.
Conroy had attended 10 schools in 11 years when he arrived in Beaufort as the teenage son of a Marine pilot, said Alex Sanders, a former College of Charleston president and chief judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals. Beaufort High School was Conroy’s third.
“Nobody knew they were driving to his literary destiny,” Sanders said.
Conroy painted the Lowcountry into his best-selling novels, evoking “the smell of the South in heat,” as Conroy wrote in “The Prince of Tides” and a passage Sanders recited Tuesday.
Under clear blue skies, hundreds filled St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Lady’s Island for Pat Conroy’s funeral Mass. A private burial followed.
The Beaufort author’s expansive family, fellow graduates of The Citadel and dignitaries from throughout the state were among those to say goodbye. Conroy died March 4 at age 70 at his Beaufort home, just weeks after announcing he had pancreatic cancer.
Conroy’s wife, Cassandra King, followed the casket down the aisle as “Amazing Grace” played during the recessional. A lone bagpiper then picked up the hymn outside.
Sanders called Conroy’s a “turbulent personality and turbulent life.”
There was no one he loved more than Cassandra King, Sanders said.
“She calmed the turbulence in his life,” he said. “She brought him peace.”
Monsignor Ron Cellini, in giving the homily, said Conroy wasn’t perfect and didn’t shy from the dark aspects of his life. He called Conroy a proud Catholic, if not a regular at Mass.
Funeral Mass is usually tailored to the family, Cellini said, but Conroy’s reach caused him to broaden his message.
“I’ve never been to a funeral where more people feel personal grief,” Cellini said.
The connection was true of more than 30 Citadel graduates from the class of 2001, who were invited to Conroy’s funeral during his stirring commencement speech that year. Many of those knew Conroy only from the minutes he spoke in McAlister Field House 15 years ago and through worn copies of “Lords of Discipline.”
Conroy clashed with his alma mater. But he and The Citadel had “kissed and made up,” Sanders noted.
Attending the service as proof was retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John Rosa, The Citadel’s president. A pair of uniformed Citadel cadets stood watch outside the church.
Longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said goodbye to a longtime friend. Riley knew Conroy from the time he published his first book, “The Boo.”
“He was big in life and generous with his time and interests and friendship,” Riley said outside the church following the service.
Conroy wrote parts of his books in Riley’s Charleston home. He championed the S.C. Aquarium in Charleston and served its board and advised the city’s International African American Museum.
Riley remembered asking Conroy to support the Charleston aquarium and Conroy telling him about the Monterey Bay Aquarium he had recently visited in California.
“He said you cannot go to that aquarium and see that giant tank and see that life and not believe in God,” Riley said.
Conroy loved books, independent bookstores and his friends, Sanders said.
“He loved all of you,” Sanders said. “He has a legion of fans all around the world who hang on his every word.”
Conroy wrestled with inner demons, Cellini said.
But he likened the mystery of Conroy’s life to the ingredients of a chocolate cake. Consumed individually, none is good.
God brought together the various aspects of Conroy’s life to form something special, Cellini said.
“The beauty of Pat Conroy is in his writing,” Cellini said. “The beauty you brought to the world will live forever.”