From Beaufort High School Class of 1969
February 2020 Issue
by Mary Hope Roseneau
Photography by Todd Stowe
Great Love. . . the closing words Author Pat Conroy always used in signing off with his friends,
either on the telephone, or in handwritten letters. The Great Love continues with a donation from his former students to the Pat Conroy Literary Center to continue Pat’s work with students, teachers, writers and readers.
The Beaufort High Class of 1969, which I proudly belong to, had its 50th reunion last October during the Shrimp Festival. The weather was perfect, the turnout was great, and due to meticulous budgeting and generous donors, we ended up with a surplus.
Celeste Prince Brown, retired principal at Laurel Bay Schools, and now a mentor in Beaufort County Schools, spearheaded the weekend event. Her right-hand gal was Connie Foutz Hipp, retired from granting loans to people, and still the Director of Leadership Beaufort. She’s been honored as the United Way volunteer of the year and the Grand Marshall of the Water Festival Parade. Connie was our treasurer, accountant, and the one who kept track of the money.
She did such a great job, that after all the dust settled, there were funds still in our account. After many email discussions, we voted to donate the remaining funds—$2,500—in honor of Pat, who was our beloved teacher, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center.
Beaufort was just beginning integration when we started high school, starting with only brave Roland Washington the first year. Gradually more black students came, as Robert Smalls and St. Helena High merged into Beaufort High. The new building was ‘state of the art’, but what made our school great were the teachers.
Pat was “Mr. Conroy” to us when he came back to his alma mater, Beaufort High in 1967, fresh from the Citadel. He taught government, psychology, and amazingly, Afro-American History. He was good-looking, athletic, charismatic, cool; barely five years older than we were. He was larger than life, and we were awestruck. Girls had crushes on him, and boys tried to imitate him. He knew everybody’s name, whether you were in his classes or not. Years later, rich and famous, he would grab you with a big hug and call you by name in the grocery store. We graduated the year he left teaching at Beaufort High, and he went on to bigger things. Well, that is, after being fired by Beaufort County Schools, and that’s the story of The Water is Wide.
Three other teachers must be mentioned: Gene Norris, Pat’s famous mentor, who passed on to him the “spark” of teaching. He taught Junior year English, and Pat made himself at home in Mr. Norris’ classroom between his own classes. Pat would sit on a table at the side and make witty comments. I remember Mr. Norris peering over his glasses and saying, “Pat, don’t you have lessons to plan?” and Pat grinning, “No sir, it’s all up here,” tapping his head. Gene was eccentric, funny and ever faithful to his beloved St. Helena’s Church. Pat gave the eulogy at his funeral to a packed house. Great Love that day.
Another gifted teacher was Millen Ellis, our Senior year English teacher, again quirky, but brilliant. He was no-nonsense, and stuck to a syllabus, but prepared us for any freshman college English class in the country. He had us reading his New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly magazines, and wrote comments like, “Do over! Think deeper!” on our essays. He was also a great mentor to Pat, but left to continue teaching in his hometown of Due West, SC. He still writes encouraging notes to many of us. That is Great Love.
The last teacher I must include is Grace Dennis, who still resides on Lady’s Island. She was our U.S. History teacher, guidance counselor and senior sponsor. She became a mentor to Pat, as well, and they kept in touch through the years with his famous “out-of-the-blue” phone calls. When Grace had her sweet daughter, Beth, Pat sent a dozen roses. Again, Great Love.
On Thursday night, January 16 we held the first of our monthly “Tidal Wave Survival Revival” get-togethers, spearheaded by Legare Wood. Celeste Prince Brown presented the large $2,500 check to Pat’s agent Marley Rusoff and her husband, MiHai Radulescu, Pat’s website owner, who accepted it on behalf of the Literary Center. Marley spoke about her years with Pat, beginning with The Prince of Tides and told us that he dearly loved his former students, and he would be very proud.
Val Sayers, a classmate and board member of the Center explained that funds could be used at the annual Camp Conroy: a summer camp for aspiring young writers held at the old Beaufort High campus, now Beaufort Middle School. Scholarships for students who need assistance, as well as stipends for teachers, could be funded. Some other projects the Literary Center may use this check for are: helping fund WiFi for needy students, the Born to Read books for new mothers and sponsoring visiting authors and writing workshops, both in and out of school settings.
Mr. Conroy’s teaching will continue, and so will his Great Love.
Pat believed in the power of literacy, and showed us well the beauty of the written word. Celeste closed the presentation by reading a quote from The Prince of Tides, Pat’s love letter to his adopted hometown, Beaufort.
“To describe our growing up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the Great Blue Heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in the mud, open an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, “There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.”
Our rowdy group got quiet during this reading. It was our childhood, and our adolescence, in the words of our teacher. Great Love, Mr. Conroy.