BEAUFORT, SOUTH CAROLINA - Pat Conroy, author of works including "The Prince of Tides'' and "The Great Santini,'' was remembered Tuesday as a "marsh-haunted boy'' who battled sorrow and tragedy to create stories set on the South Carolina coast that enriched the lives of readers worldwide.
"He was the best storyteller of our time and quite possibly of any time,'' longtime friend Alex Sanders, a former president of The College of Charleston, told nearly 1,200 people attending a funeral Mass. "A legion of readers all around the world were enchanted and hung on every word of his characters and the atmosphere of the South Carolina Lowcountry.''
Conroy, who sold 20 million copies of his works, died last week at the age of 70 following a short battle with pancreatic cancer.
He arrived in South Carolina with his family when he was 16 and his writings would subsequently reflect the vistas of the state's southern coast.
"When he crossed the Whale Branch Bridge and glimpsed the tidal marshes of the Lowcountry, he was a marsh-haunted boy from that point on,'' Sanders said. He said Conroy "took us to that magic and unique place on Earth.''
Conroy's plain, unadorned wooden casket was brought into the sanctuary while a soloist sang "The Water is Wide,'' the name of another Conroy novel based on his experiences teaching impoverished children on nearby Daufuskie Island.
The sanctuary, which seats 1,200, was nearly full and several hundred people had gathered an hour before the service. A bagpiper played as the casket was taken outside the church following the Mass. The burial was private.
Conroy's life was marked by an often acrimonious relationship with his father. He also experienced the suicide of his youngest brother, divorce, depression, and health issues including diabetes and back surgery.
"If Pat's family didn't have tragedy and sorrow - if Pat did not fight demons - his writings would never have been read,'' Monsignor Ronald Cellini said in his homily. "The beauty of Pat Conroy and his writing is truly a foretaste of the beauty we call heaven.''
Before the service, a group of 30 members of the 2001 graduating class of The Citadel, Conroy's alma mater, gathered beneath trees shrouded with Spanish moss, each wearing a class ring.
Conroy, who had been estranged from the state military college in Charleston for years after he wrote books based on his experiences there, later was reconciled with the school and invited to give the graduation address in 2001.
During that address, Conroy invited members of the class to his funeral.
"I want you to say this before you enter the church at which I'm going to be buried. You tell them, "I wear the ring,'' the author said at the time.
Conroy is survived by his wife, Cassandra King; daughters Melissa, Jessica, Megan and Susannah Conroy; and five step-children: Emily Conroy, and Jason, James, Jake Ray, and Gregory Fleischer.