The Summer I Met My First Great Man


My Desk


In the summer of 1961, when I was a fifteen-year-old boy, I was lucky to have the great Bill Dufford walk into my life. I had spent my whole childhood taught by nuns and priests and there was nothing priestly about the passionate, articulate man William E. Dufford who met me in the front office of Beaufort High School dressed in a sport shirt, khaki pants, and comfortable shoes in a year that history was about to explode in the world of South Carolina education circles. Because he did not wear a white collar or carry a long rosary on his habit, I had no idea that I was meeting the principal of my new high school. In my mind, I thought as I saw him moving with ease and confidence in the principal’s main office that day, that he must have been a head janitor in the relaxed, unCatholic atmosphere of my first day at an American public school. It was also my first encounter with a great man.

I was a watchful boy and was in the middle of a childhood being raised by a father I didn’t admire. In a desperate way, I needed the guidance of someone who could show me another way of becoming a man. It was sometime during that year when I decided I would become the kind of man that Bill Dufford was born to be. I wanted to be the type of man that a whole town could respect and honor and fall in love with – the way Beaufort did when Bill Dufford came to town to teach and shape and turn their children into the best citizens they could be.

Bill Dufford

Bill gave me a job as a groundskeeper at Beaufort High School that summer between my junior and senior years of high school. He had me moving wheel barrels full of dirt from one end of campus to another. He had me plant grass, shrubs, trees, and he looked at every patch of bare earth as a personal insult to his part of the planet. At lunch, he took me to Harry’s restaurant every day and I watched him as he greeted the movers and shakers of that beautiful town beside the Beaufort River. He taught me, by example, of how a leader conducts himself, how the principal of a high school conducts himself, as he made his way from table to table, calling everyone by their first names. He made friendliness an art form. He represented the highest ideals of what I thought a southern gentleman could be. He accepted the great regard of his fellow townsmen as though that were part of his job description. That summer, I decided to try to turn myself into a man exactly like Bill Dufford. He made me want to be a teacher, convinced me that there was no higher calling on earth and none with richer rewards and none more valuable in the making of a society I would be proud to be a part of. I wanted the people of Beaufort, or any town I lived in, to light up when they saw me coming down the street. I was one of a thousand kids who came under the influence of our magnificent principal Bill Dufford. For him, we all tried to make the world a finer and kinder place to be.

Bill Dufford was raised in Newberry in the Apartheid South where the Civil Rights movement was but a whisper gathering into the storm that would break over the South with all of its righteousness and power. Though Bill had been brought up in a segregated society, he charged to embrace the coming of freedom to Southern black men and women with a passionate intensity that strikes a note of awe-struck wonder in me today. He went south to the University of Florida the year I graduated from high school and came under the influence of some of the greatest educational theorists of his time. He returned to South Carolina with a fiery commitment to the Integration movement in his native state. No other white voice spoke with his singular power. He headed up the school desegregation department, which sent people into all the counties in the state to help with the great social change of his times. I know of no white southerner who spoke with his eloquence about the great necessity for the peaceful integration of the schools in this state. What I had called greatness when I first saw him in high school had transfigured itself into a courage that knew no backing down, to a heroism that defied the iron-clad social laws of his own privileged station from a great Newberry family.

Today, we honor Bill Dufford for a life well-lived. In recent years, he has been an articulate spokesman for the Diversity issue in our society. Because of Bill, his family donated their magnificent house to serve as Newberry College’s alumni house. The Dufford family has made large contributions to the Newberry Opera House, one of America’s loveliest buildings. Hundreds of his students went into teaching and education because of him. Today you honor Bill Dufford, one of the finest men I’ve ever met. It does not surprise me that you are honoring him; it just surprises me it took so long.

Remember, I was fifteen years old when I thought I had met my first great man. Mr. Dufford, it is a remarkable honor to introduce you today.

51 Responses to The Summer I Met My First Great Man

  • Cullie Tarleton says:

    Beautifully said. I ‘m sure Mr. Dufford was honored to have you introduce him.

  • Linda Burlingame says:

    Your words always move me and this is a remarkable story. (My uncle took the role of ‘hero’ because I “didn’t have a father.’ So I can identify a bit.) Thank you for sharing the story and congratulations to your remarkable friend.

  • Frankie S. Rosey says:

    In February of l963 I met JoAnne (Brown) George who grew up in Moncks Corner, South Carolina she had aught school with Dutchin Hardin in Beaufort. JoAnne was having a long distance romance with Bill Dufford and she talked about him all of the time. He would send her yellow roses regularly. When I started reading your books his and Dutchin’s name kept coming up.

    Last summer I was in Charleston staying at the Francis Marion and met a porter from Beaufort who was friends with Dutchin’s grandson Gillian.. Though I have never met Bill Dufford or Dutchin Hardin, I have heard how much they thought of you.If you would like to contact me please to so.

    • Amy George says:

      I just finished reading The Water Is Wide this morning, and I googled Bill Dufford, a friend of my mother’s, to see what had become of him. My search brought me to this beautiful blog entry and, serendipitously, to these comments. JoAnne Brown George is my mother. Dutchin Hardin is her college friend and was also her roommate in Beaufort. Frankie, I’m guessing you knew Mama when she moved to Cocoa Beach. What a small world! Your comment made my day. I am delighted to learn this tidbit about Mama and Bill. She always loved yellow roses; now I know why.

  • Jayne Hughes says:

    No other writer inspires and brings me to tears as does Pat Conroy. I always feel that I could crawl into “Beach Music” and be right at home.
    Pat writes such touching homages to his friends. An iconic American writer.

  • Lynn Seldon says:

    Great stuff, sir, about a great man!

  • Chip O'Brien says:

    As usual, Pat’s words find a home in my heart. I am not a great man, though I harbor aspirations. I am an English teacher in a Catholic high school and devout Pat Conroy follower. I often wonder, what will be my legacy when I’m gone. Will one of my kids become the next Pat Conroy?

  • Teachers never know where their influence will begin or end…

  • Teresa McDowell says:

    I have read everything he has written. Each book has me locked in and I feel as if I am there. I loved South of Broad and I savored every page, I didn’t want to finish it because I knew that would be the end. I would set out in the evening shade and read a few pages each day trying to save it. In my eyes there will never be another Southern writer like Pat Conroy.

  • Jennie Osborne says:

    If it is a book by Pat Conroy, I will read it, probably cry at parts of it, think about it and reread it a few years later and repeat. Every reading yields emotions and thoughts that I missed the first time around. The Great Santini wrings me out time after time.

  • Cal Waite says:

    I’m a huge fan of yours, Pat. Just found your blog — YAY! This tribute to Bill Dufford is touching and heartfelt, like everything you do. I’m still steamed I never ran into you in San Franciso when you lived there, wanted to buy you a drink. My comment is really about the picture of your desk up top here — I don’t see a computer, but do see a yellow lined tablet with a pen on it. Is it possible you don’t use a computer to write? Possible that you still use pen and paper? As a 67 year old aspiring writer myself (remember this title: “Down The Aisle Of Love”), I can’t imagine using pen and paper. My favorite line from “Death of Santini,” the one that made me laugh out loud harder than I can remember any line from any of your wonderful books: “He hates your fucking beer…”

    • Pat Conroy says:

      This is Claudia for Pat… Indeed he writes long hand on legal yellow pads… talk about deciphering… I mean those who transcribe his words. Quite a job but so happily fulfilled since at the end of it, of every page, every chapter… there is a reward: a great penmanship we so admire!

  • Mark Holmes says:

    If I remember from my reading of “Death of Santini”, Mr. Conroy says he still writes longhand.

  • Maudi Weaver says:

    Would that every child had one Bill Dufford in their life. Your beautiful writing describes him so that I feel as If I knew him personally. So happy I found your blog!

  • Mary Alice Hinshaw says:

    Thank you Pat for expressing how so many of us felt upon meeting and knowing Mr. Dufford. We all knew he was destined to be great, because that many teenagers at Beaufort High School during the 1960s could not all be wrong. It was a very special highlight of our 50th class reunion of the Class of 1964 to see him once again. He inspired me as much this year when I spoke to him as he did 50 years ago. He indeed is a great man who touched so many! Thank you for sharing this!!

  • Patty Gay Blackmon says:

    Love Pat Conroy’s books and even had my daughter reading and loving them when she was in high school. My brother attended the Citadel at the same time Pat was there. Didn’t realize he grew up in Beaufort SC, where one of my dear friends from camp St Mary’s in Bluffton,SC lived. He father was a big plumbing contractor in Beaufort. Love that area of SC and fond memories of friends and times at camp St Mary’s and parties at the Citadel from 1963 to 1968.

  • I first began to learn from Bill about 46 years ago, when as a young teenager I traveled with him and my cousin Richard to your “hearing” which resulted in the Beaufort County schools firing you for teaching effectively and serving children. I remember distinctly those few days in Beaufort, and the many life lessons learned about power, politics, racism, and public education. Ten years later I had taught with Bill at Eau Claire High School for three years, and we spent many a morning, late afternoon, and evening dissecting the dysfunctionality of district in which we taught, and the predictable failure of school reform. My work today to advance teaching as the profession that makes all others possible has been spurred by an education with Bill. Thank you for honoring this great man.

  • Brenda Ruckman McLeod says:

    I am so grateful that he was principal of BHS the first year that I taught! What a wonderful year.

  • Thank you for telling this story. Too often we forget who sparked our love for teaching, who modeled the best for us. Mr. Dufford sounds like a gentleman I would love to meet.

  • Lance P. Bonfiglio-Viola says:

    What a beautiful tribute to a great man. I had a man like this in my life as well, and his name was John Padgen. I was a 14 year old freshman at New Trier High School in Northfield IL when I met the great John Padgen. He was built like a Sherman tank, missing a couple of teeth, and wore black Riddel cleats with every outfit he adorned. He made men out of poorly constituted, overly pampered momma’s boys like me and I will never forget him. As I read this beautiful tribute that only Pat Conroy could scribe, I immediately thought of John Padgen, who daily reminded me how good looking I would have been had he married my mother. Of course, back in the day, marriage was a necessary and sufficient precursor to procreation. Today, not so much.

  • Kirk Crisman says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story (as you have done so beautifully in the past). As a Newberry grad, the Dufford family has done much for my college over the years. But it seems like they have done even more than any of us realized…

  • Patricia O"Brien Clark says:

    Principal Bill Dufford inspired me so much. I felt like I could go to him with any problem I had. He was a great man, and someone I respected. I worked hard, because he believed in me. And, I am so glad he has got recognized for all the hard work he has done. Thank you, Mr. Dufford.

  • Bill McKechnie says:

    I thought your heartfelt comments were very appropriate for such a wonderful man Citadel Class of 1974

  • Bill Beltz says:

    A great tribute posted on Martin Luther King Day. Enjoy reading your posts. It’s like getting to read your nonfiction stuff and not having to pay for it. It also helps me better understand the history of Beaufort and how you were a part of it. I enjoy getting your blogs on my FB Newsfeed. It’s good to know that there are survivors of the Civil Rights movement right here in my own Beaufort County, SC.

  • Robert Erdeljac says:

    I found your blog several days ago and will continue to visit it regularly. Reading your words is like viewing a great painting, listening to a beautiful song, or watching a major league double play. I especially enjoy your looks back to your youth. I gaze there often myself. God bless Bill Dufford and Pat Conroy.

  • Being raised in the north of Carolina with a scholarly Baptist father from Sumter and family in Charleston, was such a blessing and early education for the love of literature. I also had several inspiring teachers that I have written published tributes to with love for their interest in me.
    My father seemed to see good in his fellow man of all colors and faiths and I celebrated his 113 the birthday on the 17th of January. He graduated from Clemson in 1924 as a chemical engineer, a year ahead of Strom Thurman.
    We should celebrate a day each year for the stars in our lives.
    This tribute to Mr. Dufford brightened my morning!

  • Sarah Swisher says:

    Thanks again for sharing some of your beautiful thoughts. My husband & I have all your books. As northern teachers, now in SC, we can’t get enough of your southern charm. Please keep on sharing…..

  • Steve Garst says:

    Beautifully written, Brings back memories of my dear friend Wayne Greenhaw. All the best, Steve

  • Earlece Pearce says:

    May I add my thanks to Mr. Dufford for influencing your life and helping set you on the path toward writing the books that have meant so much to me? While reading your tribute, I thought several times that you could be describing yourself. You learned well from him.

  • Wayne Taylor says:

    I played baseball and basketball for four yrs under Coach Dufford at Winyah HS(54-57)where he got his start I believe. From my experience, he was super in coaching and leadership. One of the BEST !

  • Stepheni Scott says:

    I don’t know Bill but his brother was my doctor many years ago when I was a child. I enjoyed reading your tribute to Bill.


    A HUGE THANK YOU.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,FOR BEING.

    • Beth Story Jones says:

      Hey, Pat, I don’t know the occasion but I am so glad that Mr. Dufford was recognized for his lifetime of work in Beaufort County. Clearly, his forward thinking and kind but determined approach changed the lives of many people for the good. Perhaps we lived in a charmed time in the 60′s but there were no better teachers anywhere than Beaufort High School. Their influence has guided me throughout my life and I am forever grateful for Gene Norris, Madame Mary Vella, Millen Ellis, Dutchen Harden, Grace Foster Dennis, Mr. Gnann and all the others who loaned themselves to us in the best ways. Your descriptions of them are amazingly accurate as they walk off the pages of your writings. Thank you.

  • Vickie Hurst says:

    Wonderful story! What a godsend he clearly was to you, as well as so many others……no doubt he is immensely proud of you today as he looks down on you from on high…..

  • Kelly Minick says:

    When I think of teaching in little ol’ Saluda County (20 minutes from the beauty of Newberry), I only hope that one day someone will remember me in the way that you speak of those who have touched your southern soul. I am grateful for the spotlight you shine on teachers (Gene Norris) and other school leaders (Bill Dufford) who allowed students to see what great men they will become, too. In the pockets of the patch-worked towns that spread across S.C., lie awesome kids aching for someone, anyone to help them stitch it all together. How many journeys we all would have missed if no one ever handed you a needle?

  • Claudia Rinaldi says:

    This is Claudia for Pat… Indeed he writes long hand on legal yellow pads… talk about deciphering… I mean those who transcribe his words. Quite a job but so happily fulfilled since at the end of it, of every page, every chapter… there is a reward: a great penmanship we so admire!

  • Michael Black says:

    I too am a graduate of Newberry College. Your recognition of Bill Dufford is warming to my heart. The stewardship of the Dufford family has always been a guiding light for Newberry College. It’s warming to know the tenacles of Bill’s life touched teenagers beyond the city limits of Newberry and inspired greatness in so many. Thanks for sharing.

  • Allan Lacsamana says:

    A touching tribute Mr. Pat Conroy. God bless you and Mr. Dufford.

  • Edward Fahy says:

    I met “The Great Santini” when I was a student in flight school in Pensacola…. what a great human being. I have read every word that Pat has written…. and visited Beaufort many years ago to see the house. And… eaten some of the best fried chicken there in town that a black woman cooked up! I spent 6 months in Beaufort working with the Marines of VMFA-115 and their F-4J aircraft getting ready to deploy in USS FORRESTAL for a 13 month deployment to the Med and Indian Ocean.

    Pat, your Dad was a GREAT man, and when I met him he was talking with a former Korean War POW. WOW! A memory I will never forget! I spent 32 years as a Navy Pilot flying off aircraft carriers and actually got to command one… the JFK. My Dad also was a Navy Officer, in submarines during WW-II. I told him about meeting your Dad and he thought he’d try to get from Annapolis to Pensacola to meet him but unfortunately he died before he could get there. He was my best friend and hero!

    Take care…and all the BEST…. “Fast Ed” Fahy

  • J. Grady Locklear says:

    When Dr. Dufford was Principal at Edmunds High School(later Sumter High School), he was light years ahead of himself in his thinking for high school leadership…At the time, he made great contributions, always putting Children’s interest first…All of this recognition is very late in coming; it should have been said decades ago…Pat Conroy, one of the greatest writers of the 20 Century, said it the best in his tribute…Bill, you had a great impact on my teaching career…jgrady, SC Teacher of the year, 1977…Retired after 32 years in the classroom…

  • Alan Piercy says:

    Dear Pat,

    Thank you for this great blog and especially this post. I had the privilege to get to know Bill Dufford much later in his life – after his retirement from teaching. Though he was retired, he continued teaching in his unique way every time I saw him. The attached link is a blog post a wrote some years ago about Bill and his influence on my life. I hope you don’t mind me including it here.

    Thanks for sharing your amazing gift. Your books and observations via this blog never fail to inspire.

    -Alan Piercy

  • Heather Doucette says:

    Two weeks ago I finished “South of Broad” Those people and places are still appearing in my dreams. “Toad” and Trevor and Charleston. As a 59 year old Grama who grew up in her Canadian prairie youth never knowing a person of colour, or what was “gay” or of the struggles of boys to men, your writings have educated and entertained and touched me immensely. The relationship of the father and son – could there really be such a love. Now to find your blog and read of people who have touched your life and then allowed you to write and touch mine. What a wonderful thing.

  • sara says:

    You speak the language of adult who was once a child not allowed to speak much less express trespass of a parent. Not with out getting punished in bad way. You learn the code, stay out of the way when rages begin. It never leaves your life. You deal with it yet always there. So true. Your heart flies when in contact with a good soul. Your tribute to person part of your life could be expressed by no other.

  • Harold B. Jayroe says:

    I graduated from Winyah High School in Georgetown, SC during Bill’s sojourn there. As I recall he was an assistant principal during my junior high years at Winyah. He always had a friendly demeanor and was always accessible to students. When I was at Wofford College, I traveled to Newberry for a football game and was pleasantly surprised to see Bill on the sidelines helping the Newberry Indians. I occasionally run into Bill here in Columbia and he enjoys telling everyone that “we went to school together.” I also recall Bill heading up the Desegregation Center at USC during the sixties while I was taking graduate level courses at the School of Education and I know he was the right man for that job. To me, he is the consummate educator who fully exemplifies what education is all about. Harold B. Jayroe, Ph.D

  • Marie f. Mireault says:

    I have read and enjoyed each of Pat Conroy’s books. His use of the English language is a real joy to read. “South of Broad” was the best.

    Best Wishes and Good Luck in his new business. Marie Mireault

  • Bill Dufford was everywhere watching out for his students at Beaufort High and the kids who would soon get there. I was not even at Beaufort High yet and he knew I quit the All Star Pony League team to go down the river. He met me when I showed up for JV football practice and let me have it for quitting. He changed my life that day. When I was being yelled at by Marine Corps Drill Instructors at Naval Aviation Cadet training, I kept thinking that I would never quit because of Bill Dufford. He drove us to the Florida State Relays, the Furman Relays and quietly educated us to be good kids. The first copy of The Legend of the Putter Frog when it was published went to Mr. Dufford.

  • Mike Thompson says:

    Hail to Pat,
    A great friend, classmate and teammate 1964.
    You will be missed.
    Thanks to Mr. Dufford for being a friend and Mentor. He gave us all that special touch and guidance we needed from time even if we didn’t think we needed it. He will always hold a special place in our hearts, Thanks Mike

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