Pat Conroy, Wrote “The Great Santini” , Passes at age 70


I was listening to the radio today, and heard that the writer Pat Conroy passed last week. He wrote a number of novels, but if you love aviation, one of these works stands out above all others: “The Great Santini.”


The story is a very thinly veiled look at Conroy’s own father, and it doesn’t paint a very pleasant picture. It was made into an outstanding film in 1979, and it remains one of Robert Duval’s greatest performances. It is the story of a Marine fighter pilot father who’s personal traits make him an excellent pilot, but don’t serve him as a father. Because the work really isn’t fiction, and Conroy was writing from personal experience, the story isn’t ‘nice’, but it rings very true for many men who grew up in military families of the 1950 and 1960s.


The central conflict of the film is how Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meecham  finds himself a warrior who no longer has a war, and how difficult he finds being a father and operating in typical suburban settings.  Nearly everyone who has spent enough time around military men has a person who meets that description, but Conroy’s skill as a writer and the son of such a man conspires to make a story that it is literally painful in parts to watch. If you have not seen it, it comes with my recommendation, but it isn’t uplifting, kind nor nice, it is just moving and real, which are attributes that make films worth your time, and something more than entertainment.


My father spent 33 years on active duty, but has few of the characteristics  of “Bull” Meecham . However, I did have a front row seat to such a man.  My best friend in high school had a father who had flown 200 attack missions as a Marine in Korea, flying F-9Fs off straight deck carriers.  I spent a lot of time at their house and wanted to know something about his fathers experience, but he shared next to nothing, just a few looks at old black and white photos from 25 years earlier.


He had been hard charging guy, came back to 1950s suburbia and married a wealthy and beautiful debutante. They had a nice house in a great town, a membership at the country club, and eventually three kids, but there were times where none of that mattered, and he would drift off to drink, gamble and keep other company. Eventually came divorce, and not long after he took his life. It was all a big tragic mystery to people at the time, but as I grew older, I came to understand that after some people fly into combat enough, the thought of sitting around the pool at the country club talking about other people just doesn’t seem very exciting, and some men will do anything to raise the stakes of their ‘wagers’  in some attempt to feel alive again. The beginning of understanding this came from watching the Great Santini.”



In the film, Robert Duval played ‘the Great Santini.’  Unlike many films, this story is very close to the book. Pat Conroy had an unusual background for a writer, he graduated from the Citadel in SC.  Part of his experiences there made their way into his book “The Lords of Discipline.”  Learn a little more about Conroy here:





One Reply to “Pat Conroy, Wrote “The Great Santini” , Passes at age 70”

  1. I, too, was saddened by the death of Pat Conroy. I stayed away from the movie, The Great Santini and the book of the same name for years because I knew a few adults, who had been treated, not as children, but as members of the military by their fathers as they were growing up. I had no intention of reliving their pain.

    When I finally happened on one of his other books, I realized what a skillful writer he was. Then I finally watched Santini, and found it to be a moving story. I then read the book, and sought out his other books, including The Boo, which was a thinly-veiled story of the Assistant Commandant of the Citadel. It was banned at the Citadel for years. It is the story of an honorable man.

    One of Conroy’s best books is entitled The Water is Wide. It is nonfiction, and is the very moving story of his time teaching in a two room, all-black School on the Outer Banks. It is the story of children who were kept in ignorance so bad that they did not even know what country they lived in and how we struggled to teach them. It was made into a movie, Conrack, that starred a very young Jon Voight. I urge everyone to read the book or see the movie.

    In the movie, Santini, the main character dies at the end of the movie, but in real life, Conroy’s father was not killed. Conroy’s mother waited until the day after his father retired from the Marine Corps to file for divorce. His father had been so brutal that had the details of his actions, assaulting his family, come out while he was still in the Marine Corps he would have been court-martialed and lost all of his pension.

    Pat Conroy said, that to his father’s credit, when he was divorced, and learned how much is own children we’re afraid of him, to his credit, he changed.

    The Prince of Tides is an excellent book, better than the movie, which was pretty good, but in my opinion, it focuses too much on the character of Barbra Streisand.

    My Losing Season is also an excellent book. It is the story of Conroy as a college point guard on the Citadel Basketball team who was still being affected by his father.

    Perhaps the only book or story that I have not read of Pat Conroy’s, is The Death of Santini. It sits next to my couch, waiting.

    Pat Conroy was a Southern storyteller who I compare favorably with Thomas Wolfe. May he rest in peace.

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