Originally created 05/17/03

Author avoids knowledge of island change



BEAUFORT, S.C. - The man who launched the Low-country's foremost literary career by writing of his teaching experiences on isolated Daufuskie Island has no idea what life is like now out there.

And Pat Conroy likes it that way.

Mr. Conroy taught in the island's tiny school in 1968 and wrote about it in his novel The Water Is Wide. He delivered a boxful of the books to his former students in 1972, riding the ferry one last time.

And he never looked back. He's never been back.

"I like it the way it is in my mind. It ain't changed for me," Mr. Conroy says. "You can't believe how beautiful it was. My favorite fact about Daufuskie Island the year I was there was when the only two cars on the island crashed head-on. The island had the highest accident rate in the country, 100 percent."

Mr. Conroy talks easily, and often amusingly, about his short time on the island, about his love for his students, about his former student Sallie Ann Robinson's cookbook, the recent publication of which he calls one of his proudest moments.

The Daufuskie of today is a place he doesn't really want to know, even if thousands upon thousands of people reading his book do. His was the first book chosen for the Beaufort County Library System's premier One County, One Book reading program.

Beaufort County residents, young and old, read the book over the past few weeks, buying them from participating book stores or checking them out from the county's libraries.

More than 350 were borrowed from the libraries alone, circulation manager Kathy Mitchell said.

The idea of the program was to pick a local book by a local author and concentrate on it, to watch the movie based on it - Conrack, in this case - and discuss it at the end.

Mr. Conroy's recent speech at the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Performing Arts Center wasn't quite the end of the program. A tour of the island is scheduled for today.

Mr. Conroy's speech was sort of a tease for that, to whet the curiosity of fans of the book. Proceeds from the tour benefit the Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry. Tickets can be bought at the county's libraries for $65 apiece.

He spoke for about an hour to the 200 or so people packed into the auditorium, where, coincidentally, he stood 40 years ago when he graduated from Beaufort High School. His date for that year's junior/senior prom was county libraries director Julie Zachowski.

Mr. Conroy said he didn't know that Ms. Zachowski wanted him to talk about The Water Is Wide until the day before his scheduled speech, when he read about it in the newspaper.

He said he tried to find a copy in his personal library, but, embarrassingly, couldn't. He said he still can't believe anyone else liked it. He was 24 when he wrote it.

"What amazes me is I wouldn't listen to a single thing a 24-year-old kid had to say," he said, grinning. "I was 24 when I wrote it and the fact that it's still read, I find that amazing."

He said he was invited once to speak about his book in front of a class at a private academy. The students had studied the book long and hard and knew it forward and backward. They even took a test on it, he said.

After his speech to the students, the teacher gave him the test. He got only a quarter of the answers right.

"I realized I had not read the book in 31 years," he said. "I did not know when I wrote the book I would become me. I did not know people would read it."