Barbara Warley was loved by everyone… including me.

My desk


I’ve come to that point in my life when my memories seem as important as the life I’m now leading. On February 26, I drove from Beaufort, SC to Williamsburg, Virginia to attend the memorial service of Barbara Nelson Warley – she of the grand spirit and radiant beauty. Her husband John was the best friend I made at The Citadel who roomed with me on the baseball team and we were inseparable during our senior year. Neither of us dated much that year –  no, let me be blunter than that; we dated hardly at all, except on big weekends when cadets in Romeo and Tango companies had sisters who required escorts to the Corps Day Hop. But John and I would drive around Charleston on weekend nights, talking about girls and where we might go to pick some of them up. We never found that mythical place.

In Rome, at dinner with the novelist Gore Vidal, I once talked about my friendship with John Warley. Gore was fascinated by military colleges and had liked my book The Lords of Discipline. His father had attended West Point and had been a legendary football player there.
“You do realize, Pat, that Mr. Warley and you were gay.”
“I can’t wait to tell John,” I said.

I missed John and Barbara’s wedding at the National Cathedral in Washington. I believe I was embroiled in a fight with the School Board to get my job back on Daufuskie Island and I did not meet Barbara until after The Water is Wide was published. They were living in the Claremont Apartments within rock-throwing distance from the Culpeper Street house I lived in when Dad was stationed at the Pentagon.

Barbara Warley was a pure knockout, the stuff bad novels are made of. I’d never seen such a pretty girl and I found myself as intimidated as I was dazzled. But she bounced up to me and kissed me on the lips and said, “John’s told me all about you and I bet we’re friends forever.”

So it was and so it would always be. When John went to work the next day, Barbara and I began telling each other the story of our lives. Instinctively, we identified ourselves as members of that unhappy tribe who came from troubled and deeply flawed families. Like me, she endured one of those violent fathers who made their kid’s life a march of shame and terror. I had begun the write the first chapters of The Great Santini and told her of my own difficulty in describing a father I had loathed since I was an infant. When I told her I’d always worried that John’s parents did not seem to like me very much, she surprised me by saying that I was John’s parents’ least liked friend among all of John’s acquaintances. With a great laugh, she then admitted that John’s mother and father didn’t seem to like her much better. Barbara thought the Warleys thought John would marry a much higher class girl, “and they certainly want John hanging around with a much higher class guy than you.”

We would be fast friends for over forty years. I’ve had a bad tendency to fall in love with my friends’ wives, but it would seem unnatural not to fall for Barbara Warley. Everyone came under her spell, male and female, and it was a lemon-like soul who could resist her sweetness and vitality. She and John made a great marriage out of it and produced four children for the ages. No one writes much about the joy other people’s children bring to your life, but Caldwell, Nelson, Mary Beth and Carter have delighted me each time our paths have crossed. Mary Beth was a Korean orphan adopted by John and Barbara who provided some kind of ripeness and deepening of the whole family. John was a successful lawyer in Newport News, VA and a local player in Republican politics. Then he and Barbara announced that John was selling his law firm and moving to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. John also told me he planned to become a novelist.

This was akin to me calling John Warley to tell him I was becoming an astronaut. But Mexico was their destiny as a family and San Miguel changed everything about them and became the most romantic adventure of their lives.

On their trips back and forth between Mexico and Virginia, they would always stop for a couple of days’ rest at my house on Fripp Island. This was the time when my friendship with John deepened again and Barbara would tell me about Mexico in a rapturous trance. Now she was wearing Mexican jewelry and clothes and everything about her life in San Miguel seemed meaningful and backlit with wonder. John and I would talk about novels and writing and he was doing some serious work. His prose style was becoming a lovely and serious thing.

Eventually, the Warleys returned to Richmond for John to resume practicing law. Like most writers, he had discovered it was easier to make a living doing something besides writing novels. It was during their time in Richmond that tragedy struck and Barbara found out she had breast cancer; an aggressive chemotherapy treatment eradicated the cancer but destroyed her joints and she was to suffer debilitating pain for the rest of her life.

When I called Barbara when she returned to her house to recover, I didn’t know what to say to her. Breast cancer seems so cruel and disfiguring to me, something soul-killing and personal. Being pretty had always been such a part of who Barbara was, I wanted to say something to let her know that the cancer had not touched her singular beauty.

“Hey, Barbara, you okay, kid?” I said.
“I’m hanging in there, darling,” Barbara answered.
“I still get horny when I hear your voice,” I said, instantly horrified with myself.
She saved me by laughing hard enough for it to hurt.
“It’s just like you, Conroy,” she said. “All talk and no action.”

After John retired from the law, they moved to Beaufort and Cassandra and I saw the Warleys a lot as a couple. Everyone who met them in Beaufort was swept away by Babara’s charm and comeliness. John finished his novel “A Southern Girl,” which proves that his late call to novel writing was a path well chosen. It is a brilliant literary achievement and it is the first in a series of novels published by Story River Books of the University of South Carolina Press. It is a novel that soars and moves with a lyrical sweep that is rare in modern fiction. I wish I had written it.

Four days before Barbara died, I attended the wedding of Caldwell Warley to the comely Vanessa Snyder at the Summerall Chapel at the Citadel. Barbara and John had returned to Mexico for the past two years and his reports of her condition had worried me. When her son Nelson walked the mother of the groom down the aisle, I turned to see Barbara Warley, the girl I’d loved for forty years. She looked frail and thin and unsteady to me, but there was an intake of breath from the crowd as this gorgeous woman was led up the aisle by her good looking son Nelson. God, she was beautiful.

At a crowded and boisterous reception on Daniel Island, I went through the crowd looking for her and I stumbled into her looking for me. We fell into each other’s arms as we always did. She kissed me on the lips and then wiped her lipstick off with her hand. We hugged again and held each other tight.

“I still get horny when I see you, Barbara,” I said.
“Oh, Conroy. All talk and no action.”
And both of us laughed. The last words we’d ever say to each other.

Barbara took her own life at her son Carter’s house in Williamsburg later that week. The pain had gotten overwhelming and no one I met at the memorial service displayed the slightest bit of anger at the way she ended her life. Her children were devastated and her friends wept. A group flew up from Mexico. Mary Beth was near total collapse. I cried every time I held one of her kids. I met all her friends from Virginia. The speeches in her honor were all moving and killing at the same time.

When I got home, it was announced among our Citadel classmates: “John Warley’s wife died last week. Barbara Warley – loved by everyone.”

Pat Conroy

40 Responses to Barbara Warley was loved by everyone… including me.

  • Jayne Hughes says:

    Pat, everything you write brings me to tears, I know you don’t remember it, but I met you some twenty years ago at a Christmas party in TN. It was at a house of a friend of yours…he owned some small type of newspaper and I think his last name was Smith.
    But at that party you had me in stitches and I will never forget you. You have an innate
    ability to grab someone’s soul and never let go and for that, I thank you.
    Jayne Wiener Hughes

  • Chuck Howard says:

    Pat, I feel myself terrible for your loss. I’m grateful that you chose to share this news with the readers that care about you and what goes on in your life. I have found as I get older (51) life as I once new it ( in the trappings) has left me. Long and wonderful relationships are no longer mine. I have “left the trappings” and I hate it.
    Who are the people we’ve become? Chuck

  • Victoria says:

    I am the daughter and sister of suicides. As always, I find comfort in your prose. Maybe the pain my father and brother felt necessitated their actions but the scars left on me will never fade. We weren’t a “true” military family just civilian attached but the rules,expectations, and swift punishment were I think somewhat in the same vein as others of our generation endured. I’m always lightened by reading embrace the wildness and make it something more than the dark shadows of memories past. I do hope Barbara’s children will come in time to accept her decision without the pain her loss has caused.It’s taken me nearly 40 years to cope with my Dad’s loss and it’s almost 9 for my brother. Life moves only the past stays the same. Thank you Pat, for sharing the load. Much love..

  • Jim Spellman says:

    Pat ,
    Certainly not words I created , but take on greater meaning as I age – ” When a Friend dies , a piece of us dies with them “. Memories can never talk , laugh , touch , or cry , they are a poor remnant of what now is forever gone . We live on , but never as well nor as free . The only positive is an increased striving to earn being so missed when our own end comes.
    Thank you for enriching my life .

  • Sonny Tanksley says:

    Pat, I’m am sorry for your loss. I know exactly what you mean when you write that some memories feel somehow more real than present day life. I have had some of the same instances in my own life. I guess affection crystallizes detail in some magical way. Funny how that works…All those facets become part of us; more concrete than that alarm clock that wakes in the morning. Sunsets burn brighter than the dawn sometime. The twilight has always been the loneliest time of day for me. Memories become acute.
    God bless.



  • Kim says:

    This was lovely. xo

  • Becca Menig says:

    Thank you for sharing your stirringly beautiful tribute. I am very sorry for your loss Mr. Conroy. Condolences to you and your friend’s family.

  • Maudi Weaver says:

    Just this evening after being asked what was making her laugh my friend said it was the book she was reading. “Don’t you ever laugh when you are reading?” she asked. I responded that only when I was reading a Pat Conroy novel but I also cry at times when reading his prose. Your words many times touch my soul and never more than this beautiful tribute to one that meant so much to you. Keep writing!

  • RD Larson says:

    Life is painful in so many ways and beautiful, too. Now that I am 72, I appreciate the smaller joys that I didn’t notice in my youth. I have always loved your books and the way you have shared your life in them. They are a personal beacon that always refreshes me. I almost moved to Bald Head Island once. I live on an island now. Islands change people. The stories you have written are always close in my mind to soothe me.
    I am sorry for the loss of your friend. I hope in some way you can understand. I have had cancer for 3 years and it is now “chronic” which means it is just removed. It isn’t likely to be fatal. But all my sympathy is with you and with Barbara’s family. Blessings to you.

  • John Warley says:

    On behalf of all Warleys I thank Pat for this loving tribute to my beautiful wife. As millions of readers know, Pat has the talent to describe things closest to the bone, so that reading his prose triggers an involuntary nodding of the head and an equally unbidden skip of the heartbeat. He is a student of human nature, as any great novelist must be, and it did not take him long after meeting Barbs to discover their shared trauma of childhood. His radar for that was uncanny, and it humbled me that he knew instinctively what it took me years to learn about my wife. Barbs lived to break a cycle, and she did it. Her life mattered, and it will go on mattering. That is no small thing in this crazy world.

    • Caren Witt says:

      This is to much to read. The beauty of both Mr. Conroy’s words, as well as Mr. Warley’s are a tribute to a woman I wish I had known. God Bless You all!

  • Vicki White says:

    As a close friend for Marybeth Warley, I have to say MB has had a sparkle in her eyes like no one I have ever known. She is so beautiful and people love her dearly. She loves her family, I have heard of her speak of them often. And loves her husband Drew. The photos I see of them are pure joy. I see now that she must have taken after her beautiful adopted mother! It is easy to see how MB became the beautiful woman she is. I hope time will give her her spirit back! She is loved.

  • Deborah forbes says:

    Thank you.

  • Pat,
    What a beautiful tribute to your friend. Sorry for your loss.

  • Betsy Miller says:

    Thank you so much for these words about Barbara. She was my dear friend for almost 40 years and I miss her every day. I am so very proud of her children and I know they reflect the love she lavished on them throughout their lives. My own children were lucky enough to be touched by that same love and they are well aware of how special it was. Barbara asked me to sit behind her at Caldwell’s wedding because she said I was the closest thing to family that she had. If it sounds like I am bragging it is because I am. I am beyond honored to be considered her family.

  • Jim Florance says:

    A beautiful tribute to a most lovely lady. Thank you Mr.Conroy.

  • Shan Warley Satterstrom says:

    Thank you so much for this tribute to Barbara. I hope she now knows how important she was to all of us. I will miss her on the planet — a lot!

  • Kathy Bouman says:

    Thank you for sharing this very intimate part of your life with us. As always, you had my smiling and crying at the same time. It is very obvious why people cherish your friendship; I only wish I had that chance. Best wishes – know you are loved by many who you will never meet.

  • Sandra Smith says:

    As usual you had me from the first sentence Mr. Conroy…thank you for always managing to entertain me–but more importantly to stir emotions in me–whether happy or sad. My sincere condolences to you and the Warleys in the loss of an obviously very special person.

  • Jeff Liipfert says:

    From someone that has been touched by suicide…. thank you for what you have written…..

  • Janis Sparks says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your dear friend. I am so sorry for your loss and my deepest sympathy goes out to her family and you. May she rest in peace and is now pain free.

  • Linda Brackett says:

    There are times I read your words and my thoughts are how inappropriate.. .but of course having grown up many generational southern, it is the nature of the beast, I.e. the southern male. I have of course lived these idyllic days of joy…the suicide threw me a bit…I lost my first born son to suicide…death of a child is always a loss of great magnitude…but suicide is a place of grief very different from a natural death. As I age and now grow closer to the mid seventies I totally understand her taking charge of her own demise. The greatest tribute one can give to a real friend is to tell the story of that friendship with the deepest love and honesty.

  • Malinda Wilson says:

    Pat, as was said above, you had me from the first sentence. Your friendships have sustained you beautifully through time…one of the most comforting things said to me after the grievous loss of a dear friend is this…they aren’t where they once were, they’re now where you are. I hope this brings you a little bit of peace. Thank you for sharing this loving tribute to your friend, Barbara.

  • Martha Gresham says:

    What a wonderful testimony you have written for your friend and her family. I have always loved your writing style (and also love Cassandra King’s books) and from the very first book I read of yours, I have wanted to live on the beach in a little 3 room shanty with a tin roof right next to you. I was just sharing this with my book club just this week. I know it will never be a reality, but I can dream, can’t I? Take care and keep on keeping on. I too shared a father like yours, even if he was not in the military and could identify with having to grow up in a bad situation.

  • Lynn Eldredge says:

    Thanks for sharing, Pat.
    My love to her family and friends.

  • Doug Hill says:

    I first met you in 1980 at the Boston Globe Book Fair when “The Lords of Discipline” had just been released and I last saw you at Barbara Warley’s memorial service. In between I have loved reading your work and am an avid fan.

    As I read your beautiful tribute to her, I was reminded that it was the Conroy connection which brought the Warleys and me together. In January 2011, on my first visit to San Miguel while sitting on a bench with a friend, we struck up a casual conversation with John Warley as he was was walking by. When he announced that he was Beaufort, South Carolina, I immediately exclaimed: “That’s Pat Conroy country!” John’s response: “Pat Conroy is my best friend… fact, he dedicated “The Lords of Discipline” to me.” I was hooked.

    Later that day while I was getting some sun on our roof deck, my Boston friends ran into John again and this time met Barbara. They reported back to me that she was absolutely beautiful with teeth even whiter than mine. I was intrigued and abit intimidated but when I first met her later at a cocktail party, I was at once dazzled by her radiance while totally captivated by her graciousness and vitality.

    When it was our turn to host a cocktail party I announced to my Boston friends that my dream of dreams would be to go out to dinner afterwards with just the Warleys.
    They wholeheartedly agreed and we ended up dining on the terrace of the Instituto Allende with the huge pink Parroguia as a backdrop. It was a magical San Miguel evening during which I–like so many others–fell under the spell of Barbara Warley. I maneuvered myself right next to her and as it was one of those dinners where there were 3 ongoing conversations among the 6 of us, she and I were able to chat and connect.

    Pat Conroy became the starting point of our conversation during which Barbara shared that she felt a special and “kindred soul” connection with you and then began to relay stories of her owned troubled childhood. She did so with such great strength and feeling that I felt privileged to be her dinner partner as we forged that special bond of friendship.

    In subsequent visits, the Warleys continued to remain a key part of our San Miguel experience and a primary reason for me to return each year. One year they hosted a New Year’s Eve party at which I warmly greeted by Barbara with a huge kiss and a warm embrace as well as posted sign announcing the “Doug Hill Suntan Challenge.”

    This January I arrived in San Miguel later that usual with the Boston crew already there since the beginning of the month. At dinner that night, I noticed there were places for 2 additional people and I was overjoyed when I heard the Warleys would be joining us as I had thought that they had already departed for South Carolina to attend festivities associated with Caldwell’s wedding.

    That night at dinner was the first time I ever got a sense of the pain that Barbara had been enduring. She shared her list of ailments with great courage and at times even humor…..never really complaining but rather stating everything matter of fact.

    Some legal matters kept Barbara in Mexico a little longer and she joined us for the cocktail portion of a farewell dinner at a restaurant prior to our departure. Once again, I was drawn to her side as we talked non stop while sipping wine. She mentioned that she wanted to accompany John when he travelled to Boston for his book tour. We said our goodbyes and I am now so very grateful to have had that opportunity to spend time with her.

    We were all greatly stunned and saddened by the news of her death. At the memorial service with all the loving memories shared by especially John and their children made me feel even closer to this remarkable woman.

    And yes Pat, I completely agree with you—Barbara Warley was truly loved by everyone.

  • Amanda smyth says:

    I am so touched by your honesty. How lovely. I am the one who gave you the directions; John’s god daughter. Thank you for sharing.

  • Donna Meyer says:

    Thank you, Pat, for this precious and loving tribute to a beautiful soul. I was one of the privileged ones to know Barbra and call her my friend. I first met her sometime in the first week after she and John arrived in San Miguel with Carter and Marybeth. What followed was many months of warmth, laughter, outings, deep conversations and great friendship. You have captured her spirit so beautifully in this post.

    Thank you…. and yes… Barbara was loved by everyone… including me.

  • Angie Hucks says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As her neighbor, I enjoyed seeing her come home in her convertible loaded with blooming plants and she was the prettiest flower of all that she had purchased.

  • Mrs. Mary Kapellas says:

    Dearest Pat,

    I just finished reading Beach Music here in Old Town Alexandria. It touched my heart deeply – as I was researching on line how to contact you I came across this site. I was so very sorry to hear you lost your sweet sensitive friend Barbara – that she suffered with cancer – took her precious life. Bless her – her husband and you! My husband a retired fighter pilot visit Beaufort and Hilton Head often. We plan to retire there in a few years. Your books have touched my life deeply. Thank you Pat. Take care – Mrs. Mary Kapellas – if your ever in Old Town stop by for a cocktail.

  • Gary Olsen says:

    I grew up with Barbara and the Nelson clan in the small town of Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho and am hoping to leave you with a sense of her roots and the manner in which she treated others around her. This is the difficult part… figuring out where to start….
    The men in her family were tough…the women were gentle, accepting, loving, inclusive of others, athletic, and even at young ages were taught by their mother to always look others in the eye when carrying on a conversation. Barbara was always destined for personal greatness in life…. to me that meant always being the one person whose name and face was never forgotten… In fact, that was happened in her life well lived. The last time we saw one another was during our 25th High School Reunion held at the county Fairgrounds. Here comes Barbara elegantly bounding across that giant old airplane hangar building with her effortless athletic grace just to say hi… It was a scene repeated many times as she caught up with all her old friends to inquire about their families. I never forgot her answer when I asked her about her life thus far. Here was here response…”Gary, I found the man I love and am now officially a member of a Virginia Blueblood family”. She spoke it with a matter of fact delivery and without a trace of arrogance… That was how I shall remember this beautiful childhood friend and her testament to A Lived Well Lived…

  • George Marker says:

    I was a classmate of Barb at Coeur d’ Alene High School in Idaho. I was not an “important” person at CHS like some people……class presidents, club leaders, jocks, etc. Barb and I became very good friends while we were at the school because it didn’t matter to her what you were, it was more important who you were. She treated me with respect and I liked her very much. I was not in love with her but I sure treasured her friendship. She was never full of herself which is what made her special because she was an important person. What a tragedy. I am sad but think of the good times we had in high school. RIP Barb. You will be missed.

  • Jim Hodge says:

    I found out today from my good friend George that one of my dear friends has passed. I am deeply saddened by this event. It just does not seem possible. George summed her up well and he may not have been in love with her but I think 90% of all us boys had a crush on her from 8th grade on, including me. I don’t think she was aware of her inner and putter beauty. She was everyone’s friend and friends with everyone. We were all very happy for her when she found the love of her life and taken care of liked she deserved.I will miss knowing she is not with us anymore like many of our class mates and know she will be a standout in heaven like she was on earth. God bless to her husband and children. Jim

  • Haley says:

    Barbs was an athiest. Beauty wasted.

  • Just finished “The Death of Santini” and was pleasantly surprised on what an excellent read you have written. Being the son-in-law and friend of Lt. General (USMC-deceased) Tom Miller, I had a bias opening the first page. His belief was truly the Marines, family and God. I would refute, in steadfast legal fashion, your eulogy comments about your father being “the most famous Marine aviator ever.” That distinction must go to Miller’s good friend, John Glenn. Miller, one of only two aviators to fly combat missions in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, flew in over 58 different aircraft and was the father of the Marine Harrier. He was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 2010 with Neil Armstrong. Semper Fi. Keep writing. CAS

  • says:

    I am reading your last book, I have loved all of your books. Coming from an Irish-catholic family, I relate to your childhood. Their behavior was a legacy handed down from one generation to the other. When I corrected my son, my mother who had beaten me too many times, called me a tyrannical , I was only verbally correcting him. She was the same woman that chained my 4 yr. old sister to the furnace (summer) for crossing the street. they did the best they could. I think my son and I finally broke the chain of terror. He still thought I was too harsh.
    Thank you for writing such wonderful stories, I adore all of your books

  • Betsy Heller says:

    You have always been my favorite author–but after reading A SOUTHERN GIRL, you may be my second favorite now… John spoke in my home town recently and I was taken with him even before I read his book—what a guy— what a family… and what a book…

  • Rosalie Hiers says:

    What great tributes to your friend.
    Pat, I really enjoy your books. My book club is reviewing The Great Santini tomorrow. I hope I do it justice.
    A fan,

    Bertram, TX

  • Dearest Pat:
    You and my brother were in H.S> together w/Bernie Schein. I remember seeing you at a book signing on Bay Street, and at the YMCA in Port Royal. I have read all of your books; dearly loved as I myself had a strict, tough upbringing. It’s good at the end of the journey you are sharing good memories. This was a wonderful tribute to read. Especially your words make the setting and the reader feel as if we were there with you . What Nostalia! We are bleest for having known you and felt like we were in a fantasy world with some of your books. I was disappointed BEACH MUSIC never became a movie. The part of the turtles were awesome! Later; keep writing as I do. By the way, A copy of my LOWCOUNTRY LADY is in Beaufort’s public library. Your wife might be interested in my cookbook also. Gloria’s Goodies and more—
    The south will never have such an author as you! The Lord’s angels will fly you to a special room where even the Lord himself will sing,”ALL IS WELL___”Gloria Hiers Hamilton

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