Pat Conroy shares deep insights on art and life with Ex Libris Society

Reece Williams and Pat Conroy ex libris 2015COLUMBIA, S.C. – On Nov. 6, novelist Pat Conroy spoke to the Ex Libris Society – a group of individuals who provide substantial support to the libraries at the University of South Carolina – about the relationship between life and art, and he drove his message home with a riveting story:

Conroy was introduced as a student to Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel by the legendary Beaufort High School English teacher Gene Norris. Norris had wondered whether Conroy was ready for the novel. “Ready?” recalls Conroy. “I read that book, I was on fire. I wanted to eat a book after I read that book.”

The next summer, Norris said “Get in the car, boy,” and drove Conroy to Asheville, N.C. He parked in front of a huge, white house and said, “This is where Thomas Wolfe grew up,” which caused Conroy to marvel, “My God, it’s a real place.” He saw the porch, the rooms, the bed where the events in the novel that had impressed him so, that had caused him to weep, had taken place.

He was staggered by the experience. Before they left, Norris tossed him an apple from a tree in the yard, saying, “Eat it, boy.” Conroy knew that Wolfe had said the apples that grew in North Carolina were the best in the world. Conroy tasted the apple, then asked Norris why he was doing so. “Just shut up and eat it, boy.” But why?

Said Norris: “Boy, it’s high time you knew there was a relationship between life and art.” Pat Conroy absorbed that lesson thoroughly, and his readers have been the beneficiaries.

That was but one of the deeply personal stories with which Conroy regaled a rapt audience of Ex Libris members and their guests at their annual dinner meeting, held at Thomas Cooper Library, which hosts Conroy’s papers among other significant collections representing some of the giants of American literature.

There were about 100 Society members and guests in attendance, a considerable turnout, “because it was Pat Conroy” speaking, said Thomas McNally, dean of libraries at the university. “This is an event that we have when we say thank you,” said McNally. “So we try to come up with a good speaker and a nice program.”

The Ex Libris Society recognizes donors who provide invaluable annual donations to support the University Libraries – Thomas Cooper Library, South Caroliniana Library, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, South Carolina Political Collections, Digital Collections, Music Library, Moving Image Research Collections and the Business Library. Donors who contribute $1,000 or more annually in support of the University Libraries are enrolled in the Ex Libris Society for the calendar year. Donors may designate their tax-deductible contribution to any of the various funds that benefit the University Libraries. A list of established funds is available at:

The Nov. 6 event was also the annual meeting for the Society, with the election of members to the executive committee. Three members have completed one-term and were elected to serve a second: Lloyd Hendricks, Dr. Alex Pappas and Dr. Jerome Platt. Two new members were elected: Dr. Richard Layman and Lynn Robertson. Three members have completed their terms: Dr. Flynn Harrell, Dr. Donald Fowler and LTC Gerald C. Bauknight, USAF (Ret.).

“The board,” said McNally, “is a fairly prestigious group of people.” They are also people who have the good of the library close to heart at all times – as Society President D. Reece Williams III, an attorney and member of Callison, Tighe and Robinson, LLC, demonstrated near the end of the evening.

Conroy wasn’t the only one to speak about the intersection of experience and art. At the behest of Williams, Conroy’s wife, novelist Cassandra King, got up to read a long, moving letter that Barbra Streisand had written to Conroy on the occasion of his birthday, remembering how their friendship developed over the filming of “The Prince of Tides.”

When she was done reading the letter and returned to her seat, Williams asked, “You going to give that to us?” Yes, she said, and the letter has now been added to the Conroy collection.