South Carolina

Pat Conroy’s bromance: Beaufort friend Bernie Schein says it wasn’t always easy

Pat Conroy taught me about Beaufort’s beauty

Pat Conroy's best friend, Bernie Schein, was his usual engaging self when he spoke about the late, iconic author outside the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Center for the Arts on Oct. 20, 2016 - the start of the Pat Conroy literary festiv
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Pat Conroy's best friend, Bernie Schein, was his usual engaging self when he spoke about the late, iconic author outside the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Center for the Arts on Oct. 20, 2016 - the start of the Pat Conroy literary festiv

Bromance isn’t easy.

Especially if the “bro” is Pat Conroy.

But Bernie Schein of Beaufort, Conroy’s best friend since their days shooting hoops together at Beaufort High School in the early 1960s, says today, “No pain, no gain.”

It was the “pain” part of Schein’s book released this week about Conroy that surprised me. I expected to read only about the good times.

“Pat Conroy: Our Lifelong Friendship” does indeed tell how an instant bond formed between the smart-aleck son of Morris and Sadie Schein and the newcomer to town, another military dependent whose dad, a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot, seemed heroic.

Everybody knew Bernie’s dad. He ran Schein’s Grocery at the corner of Bladen and Prince streets. His mother was the concert pianist. And many could remember the murder of Bernie’s grandfather, a Russian immigrant who was a peddler before opening a country store near today’s Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

No one knew about the Conroys, though.

Schein quickly learned that he scored more points when Conroy was the point guard.

And he learned from Conroy to appreciate the beauty of Beaufort, which was there for all to see, but had always blended in like a corner table to Schein. Kids, he said, rode their bikes by the breathless view of the Beaufort River to sit on the curb outside Luther’s and read Batman comic books.

Young Conroy said, “Look at it!”

The egrets, blue herons, osprey, sunlight shimmering off the water, a lonely-looking barge, a dashing sailboat, colorful flowers on the riverbank.

The eye-opening would continue until Conroy’s death on March 4, 2016 at age 70.

“It wasn’t just that he opened my eyes to horror, he opened them to beauty,” Schein said Wednesday at his home near Battery Creek. “He opened them to redemption. Everything in his life was about redemption, including our relationship.”

That’s the part of the book I did not expect.

The “bromance” — so obvious since Schein retired from teaching in an Atlanta private school and came home to Beaufort about 15 years ago — was not all about beauty. It got ugly.

Schein writes about a 15-year separation when the two best friends never spoke. He tells why it happened, and how it was resolved.

But he says he didn’t write the book to tell the world more about Conroy, the best-selling author of “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides,” the writer who outed domestic abuse, the second-rate education system for Lowcountry African Americans, and hazing at The Citadel. He also told the world about the Lowcountry’s beauty.

“He was the biggest truth-teller I’ve ever seen in my life,” Schein said. “By far.”

But Schein also says Conroy “lied for a living” as a fiction writer. He was a warrior you dared not cross. He drank way too much. He was demanding. He could be a pain in the rear end, and he knew it.

“I wrote (the book) because, after he passed away, I will tell you, I was broken,” Schein said. He was still literally talking with his old friend, until his daughter, Maggie, finally told him he needed to start writing.

The result is an inside look at a person who became famous. Painfully famous.

But to me, it’s a look at something rarer than fame: a close friendship.

“If you are talking about an intimate relationship, it’s going to be fantastic, you’ll never experience such depth and joy and understanding,” Schein said. “It’s also going to be far from easy, and you’re going to hate his ... guts and he’s going to hate yours. And if you can’t get mad and express it, you can say goodbye to it. That was Pat’s weakness.”

Schein dissects their relationship like a therapist.

“Pat could not express his anger, directly,” he said. “He could only do it from a distance, and he could do it to humanity in general, but to a personal friend, no. He just couldn’t do it. He was afraid of Santini exploding. He was afraid of becoming like his father, ‘The Great Santini.’

“This is the rage that was repressed. He was afraid that it would come out. The rage, the violence. And then by suppressing it, it was a lot worse.

“So, if you want to tame the beast inside you, you’ve got to embrace it. You have got to embrace it.

“That’s why he medicated himself. That’s why he left people. He left me because he couldn’t tell me he was (mad). He felt like I had betrayed him.”

Schein said their relationship was restored after they returned separately to Beaufort. They enjoyed hours of conversation, jabbing and teasing — for years.

“I’m not giving anybody advice on how to make a friend, or if this is good or bad, or if this is the way to do it,” Schein said. “But when you say, what’s the moral, that’s the moral. It’s love. It’s love. You’ve got to earn it. You have to stick with it. No pain, no gain.”

Book signings Saturday

Beaufort Bookstore, 2127 Boundary St., 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 14.

McIntosh Book Shoppe, 917 Bay St., 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14.

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Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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