Pat: A Natural Born Mentor

Photo credit: Elizabeth DeRamus

Photo credit: Elizabeth DeRamus

Ironically enough, some of the most small-minded people I ever worked with worked in newsrooms.  I was reminded of that this weekend as I read numerous newspaper articles about the death of Pat Conroy.

My heart was heavy when I read an AP article stating, “The heavy-set author had battled other health problems in recent years, including diabetes, high blood pressure and a failing liver.”

Framing Pat’s death that way seemed like “fat-shaming”, a not-so-subtle way of suggesting that Pat’s death was the result of poor choices, not a brutish cancer.

Other articles were simply full of inaccuracies. Even the New York Times and Daily Mail wrongly reported that Pat Conroy only had two daughter – he has four. And neither paper initially made mention of his step-children.

When I first read the NYT piece (now corrected, thankfully) I winced. I knew how hurt Pat’s daughters would be by the unforgivable omission. (Lazy journalism can be the only excuse for such a mistake). I wasn’t surprised then later to read the anguished remarks by one of Pat’s daughter about the NYT piece.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the writer of the Times’s essay, a Mr. William Grimes, felt it was his obligation to demean Pat after his death. Referring to Pat’s father as “sadistic” and his mother as “gauzy” – is that a Yankee way of saying “shallow”? – Mr. Grimes referred to Pat’s writing as “long-winded and purplish.” Then, Mr. Grimes went on to pull a quote from an LA Times critic who disliked Pat’s work.

Is this Mr. Grimes attempt at being “balanced”, reminding readers that not everyone loved Pat’s writing? Or is it possible that Mr. Grimes is among the legions of journalists who fancy themselves better writers and are always bemoaning the fact that despite their obvious talent they can’t get a book deal?

I was working in a West Coast newsroom one day when Pat Conroy called me. It wasn’t the first time he called, nor the last. We chatted at length about a project I was working on. Pat offering to help me anyway he could. When I got off the phone, a journalist who considered himself the best writer in the newsroom asked, “Was that The Pat Conroy?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Whyever would HE be calling YOU?” he asked.

I didn’t answer him. I didn’t offer him anything. I simply gathered my things and left the newsroom quietly and returned to my bureau office in Oregon to finish up the day’s work.

But I never forgot how his remarks made me feel: Small. Insignificant. Not as good as him.

That journalist made me feel the exact opposite of how Pat Conroy made me feel when he spoke to me. Pat was a natural-born mentor. Quick-witted and quick to praise. He once told me he was a blurb-slut. He was referring to his tendency to be generous with other writers, always trying to help out where he could. Some of the best writing advice I ever got came from Pat. But it was the way he cared about others, his generosity of spirit that remains with me.

While Miss Nelle hid away, denying audience to all but a select few, Pat Conroy spent his lifetime casting a wide net and drawing us all in.  Many a writer owes their start to Pat.

The NYT essay failed to capture the Pat Conroy most people in the literary world know. Instead it painted Pat as a Dickens-like caricature, an unhappy child who owed his ability to write to an abusive childhood in a southern town. The essay is dismissive of the blood, sweat and tears that Pat put into everything he wrote.

Writing is not a hobby. It is 97 percent hard work and 3 percent talent. Pat may have had more talent than most of us, but he never used that as an excuse not to work doubly-hard at his craft.

Instead of marking Pat’s success up to an abusive childhood, journalists would do well to delve deeper into the bigger story: If Pat Conroy’s childhood should teach us anything, shouldn’t it teach us that the aftermath of war causes great suffering? Instead of Donald Conroy being considered as the sole impetus for Pat’s writing, shouldn’t Donald Conroy be a case-study for how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can terrorize children and spouses for decades to come?

Of course, such questions require more thoughtful journalism.

It is easier, I suppose, to those who didn’t know him to make Pat a one-dimensional character, shallow and narcissistic.

He was neither of those things.

Perhaps that’s why the NYT essay didn’t ring true for me.

For a more accurate account of Pat and his life, the Island Packet’s David Lauderdale provides better insights.

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Burdy (Mercer Univ. Press). 

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

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