The Boo’s Lambs Gather in Charleston
Hey, out there,
My classmates in Romeo Company at The Citadel are beginning to stir and gather. As the country paused to remember the firing on Fort Sumter, it made me remember that I went to the college whose cadets fired the first shots in the Civil War and that two of my classmates in R company were named for southern Generals – Stonewall Jackson Watson and Wade Hampton Williford III.
I spoke at The Citadel library at an event honoring the publication of my friend John Warley’s new novel called Bethesda’s Child. John and I roomed together on The Citadel baseball team and have been lifelong friends ever since those faraway days. I wrote a thirteen-page introduction to his book, and it reminded me of our times on that wonderful team with road trips through the south which still remain legendary to me and John. He and I are going to be doing a talk together next year at the Savannah Book Festival. John and his wife, Barbara, are our neighbors now that Cassandra and I have moved into Beaufort. We have lunch on a weekly basis to reminisce about our time at The Citadel together.
After the talk at The Citadel, John and I went out to a restaurant bar on Queen Street with three of my classmates from Romeo Company. Unfortunately, John Warley was a slovenly uncouth member of Tango Company, the tallest company at the college, but also the dumbest and least military. My “R” Company guys griped all evening that I had loused up the experience by bringing along a “waste from Tango,” but John is silver-tongued and quick, and he more than held his own. The horror of all Citadel wives is to put up with their husbands telling Citadel stories with their classmates that they’ve heard a thousand times before. I admit, there is some repetition at play.
I’d never met Robbie Schear’s wife before, though I knew of her when they dated at The Citadel. Nancy Miller was selected “Miss Citadel” for our senior year and remains a stunning woman today. Stonewall Jackson Watson brought his delightful daughter, Meg, who has a lot better personality than her father ever did.
We talked of many things that night ranging from Hell Night to members of the R Company cache we still hated with all the powers of abhorrence we could summon. But someone mentioned The Boo and I realized I had never stopped grieving over The Boo’s death. For those readers who don’t know, The Boo was Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvoise, the assistant commandant of cadets at The Citadel and the subject of my first book The Boo. I often tell people The Boo is “worst book ever written by an American,” and I wish I’d written it better. But the evening made me think a lot about the Boo, who is buried near my parents in the Beaufort National cemetery. I was scared of him at The Citadel, but he was a source of humanity and justice, and the most beloved man on campus during his brief time among the cadets. I went looking for the presentation copy of The Boo he had given me in 1970. I had never opened it that I could remember, and I wanted to see if he had signed it. When I opened it, I found these eight words written to me 41 years ago: “To the lamb who made me, The Boo.” These words made my whole writing career worthwhile.
And I have begun thinking of that life as miraculous and lucky. How could a man I had dreaded as my commandant and who tried twice to get me kicked out of college become the subject of the first book I would write? How could the young kid I was then become one of the closest friends the Boo would ever make? Who could have predicted that the Boo would be hired as the mighty advisor for the filming of The Lords of Discipline in England? After his long humiliation and exile by The Citadel, who would have predicted that he and I would both be honored by a full dress parade and honorary degrees as we both stood shoulder to shoulder on the same parade ground we had marched on as boys? Who could have foreseen the day I would deliver his eulogy at the Summerhall Chapel or that I would give a speech on the night they named the dining room in the new Alumni Hall after him? Not me. Not once. Not ever.
I thought you might like to read the speech I gave when they dedicated “The Boo’s room.” It was a great night, and the Boo’s lambs have always been rowdy, loud and attracted to the wild side.
“There is one great story about The Boo that has never been told, and I waited for a night like this to tell it. In 1969, The Boo was removed from his position as the assistant commandant of cadets in charge of discipline and sent in exile to the Citadel warehouse where he spent the rest of his career in charge of cadet luggage and supplying the entire campus with custodial material and toilet paper. He was given a direct order that he was to have nothing to do with Citadel cadets except those who had business at the warehouse. Always the good soldier, the Boo did as he was told and his personal contact with cadets before he retired in 1982 was minimal. In those years, The Citadel learned they could hide the growing legend of the Boo, but they could not bury it. The Citadel found out that it could not hide what the Corps revered; it could not sweep under the rug what the Corps deeply loved. The Boo had proven he could love a whole Corps of Cadets like no man who ever put on a Citadel ring. It came time for the Corps to pay him back.
In 1973, The Boo had a heart attack that almost killed him. I drove down from Atlanta to visit him at the Naval hospital, and he did not look that day like a man who would survive to see the dedication of the Courvoise Room in September of 2001. When I left to return to Atlanta the next day, Elizabeth Courvoise wept at my departure and told me she did not ever think I would see her husband again. Two weeks later, he returned to his quarters in The Citadel campus, bedridden and despondent. For a month, he did not leave his house. Only a few cadets came to visit him because the Boo had become invisible to the Corps of Cadets or so The Citadel thought. So the Boo thought.
Nothing on Earth thinks or moves or acts or responds like the Citadel Corps of Cadets. The Corps of Cadets is a sovereign nation into itself, a country that fashions it own rules, a strange entity that makes up its own mind in its own good time. The Citadel thought the Corps of Cadets had forgotten the legend of the Boo. But it was the Corps who made that legend and the Corps who would keep it alive.
Word spread that the Boo was critically ill. A rumor had it that he was dying. Along the galleries, cadets gathered to talk, and the rumors began to fly, and nowhere does rumor travel faster than the Corps. Because they are cadets, there is always mischief and always daring, always a sense of humor that is deeper than anything else. A plan was hatched in secret.
At parade the following Friday, the Board of Visitors and General Duckett stood and saluted as the Corps passed in review before them as they had done on a thousand Fridays before. But this time parade was destined to be unlike any Citadel parade before or since in the many-storied and many-splendored history of our college. This parade belongs to the ages. When the A Company commander marched his troops off the field, his company was nearing the street in front of Third Battalion where he would issue the traditional order of “Company right, march.” In the first time since The Citadel moved to its new home by the Ashley River, the A Company Commander ordered his three platoons to march to the left. He was followed by the Commander of the Bravo company, of Charlie, of Delta, of Echo and then by every company in the Corps. On the street between the Third and Fourth Battalion, Alpha Company marched right toward the mess hall and the infirmary with the entire Corps of Cadets behind them. At the infirmary, the Corps turned left again and only two people on the campus knew what the Corps of Cadets was up to.
The Boo had spent the day shining up. “The cadets won’t care if you’re shined up or not,” Elizabeth Courvoise said to her husband.
“I expect the Corps to be sharp for me,” the Boo said, “I want to be sharp for them.”
When the boys of Alpha reached his house, and the A Company Commander gave the command of “Eyes Right” the guidon snapped in the cool autumn air. The Boo, in uniform, returned the salute with perfect military bearing and held it until A Company has passed. Then he saluted Bravo and Charlie, on down to Romeo and Tango and the Band.
The man who had not been out of his home for ninety days and the man who had not returned to work for a single day held his salute as seventeen companies passed in view for a man that none of them knew. Here is the significance of that thrilling, rouge parade which in the highly structured world of The Citadel was a revolutionary act. The Corps of Cadets broke ranks and all the rules of order that applied to the Friday parade to pay homage to the man who was in charge of cadet luggage. The Corps has never broken ranks to honor General Summerall or Mark Clark or Prince Charles or Ronald Reagan or any member of the Board of Visitors or the generals of any army of the world. The Corps did it once and only once and they did it for the love of the Boo, a man they knew only by the power of his legend, by the greatness of his story. And nothing moves the Corps like the power of love.
That power has gathered us together tonight. It is here that we will pass in review for the Boo one last time. We will name this room for him and him alone. Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvoisie has now written his name into the stones of our college, long after he wrote his name in our memories and hearts. Once the Boo roamed this campus fierce, alert and lion voiced, and his wrath was a terrible thing. He could scream and rant and call us “Bums” a thousand times, but he could not hide his clear and overwhelming love of the Corps. The Corps received that love, took it in, felt it in the deepest places, and now, tonight, we give it back at the school where we started out and we give it to the Boo, as a gift, because once, many years ago, the Boo loved us first, when we were cadets of boys and when we needed it the most.
Boo, your bums salute you, sir and we give you this room and we do it for love of you and the ring.”
Great love, Pat Conroy