My name is Lynn, and I wear the ring. It’s not one of those diminutive rings from the Citadel. It’s a substantial chunk of gold from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).
Ring sizes—and teasing—aside, some of the finest men and women I knew or know are Citadel grads. That list includes 1967 Citadel graduate Pat Conroy and the many good souls he introduced me to, like his classmates John Warley, a fellow writer, and Scott Graber, Pat’s long-time attorney.
I always loved comparing rings—and military school stories and nightmares—with Pat. We shared a love/hate relationship with our chosen colleges, especially our “initiation” rites as Citadel knobs and VMI rats, but we wore our rings with pride as part of a unique brotherhood.
I first met Pat in the fall of 2010, the year South of Broad was released. Fittingly enough, it was in Charleston, just north of Broad. We had lunch at Slightly North of Broad (SNOB), with Pat wondering out loud over shared shad roe and shrimp and grits why no one had written “The VMI Novel,” as he had done for the Citadel with The Lords of Discipline. I’ll never forget him looking me squarely in the eyes and saying, “I think you can do it, Lynn.”
My debut novel, Virginia’s Ring, was released in 2014, with thanks to Pat for the title suggestion, razor-sharp editing, and a cover blurb, which has surely led to more sales of Virginia’s Ring than my mere words.
My new novel, Carolina’s Ring, will be published by Koehler Books on February 15. It’s a coming-of-age story between twin brothers and the woman they love. It unfolds from the foothills of South Carolina to the Citadel, VMI, and beyond. Although Pat is no longer with us, his influence is on every page, thanks to the opportunity I had to write much of the novel in Pat’s book-lined office overlooking Beaufort’s bucolic Battery Creek. This gift and honor came from novelist Cassandra King, aka Pat’s “last wife.” She said Pat would have loved that words were still flowing at his simple locally made desk and his beloved books were once again being pulled from the sagging shelves.
For more than four years, I reported to Pat’s desk and marched forth with Carolina’s tale. Several times, a plump cardinal appeared at the window, and I propose it was Pat’s larger-than-life spirit checking on my progress. When I groped for the right word, which was often, I had lots of inspiration (and procrastination possibilities) nearby, thanks to more than five thousand of Pat’s beloved (and recently catalogued) books. I re-read a lot of books by Conroy favorite Thomas Wolfe, which Pat kept within arm’s reach, as well as The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, and the poetry of James Dickey, which all influenced Carolina’s Ring.
We’ll celebrate publication day at Beaufort’s Pat Conroy Literary Center, a museum and much more that honors the legendary writer with memorabilia and photos, hand-written manuscripts, and one of Pat’s desks (where photo ops are very popular). His legacy of helping other writers is alive and well at the center, with executive director Jonathan Haupt recently telling me, “It’s an absolute honor to share this space and our stories of Pat with his fellow readers and writers.
“Throughout our tours—and most especially in our re-creation of his office—you can always feel both Pat’s presence and his absence. It’s magical. And more importantly, it’s meaningful.” The Center also hosts a full calendar of events, ranging from readings to workshops to guest speakers, like the annual “March Forth” weekend (March 3–5 this year), which commemorates Pat’s death on March 4, 2016, and late fall’s Pat Conroy Literary Festival. Writer workshops have given training, support, and encouragement to writers such as Rebecca Bruff and Nancy Ritter, like Pat would have done. Visitors can even look through several shelves from his book collection—just like I did back in Pat’s office.
My book is a physical reminder of Pat’s influence on my writing and life, but I’ll cherish the memories more. The meals. The calls. The time with Pat and Cassandra in Beaufort and beyond. I stand at attention in an overflowing platoon of writers and salute Pat and everything he did for so many. After all, we wear the ring.