He Wore the Ring


Tami Mendez, Pat Conroy, and Dorie at a book signing at The Marcus Jewish Comminity Book Festival.

He wore the ring and captivated the imagination of his readers. The Lords of Discipline inspired young men and women to seek out the unique challenge of attending The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. He turned a phrase like no one else. He packed the house each time he appeared at book festivals.

Pat Conroy died last night after a short confrontation with pancreatic cancer. The news spread across The Citadel social networks like wild fire last night.

I have to admit I did not know much about Pat Conroy before my son set his sights on attending The Citadel. Like many high school boys my son had read The Lords of Discipline and was drawn into the mystic of the military school. While after the publication of the book Pat endured ridicule and on campus and around Charleston, from my observations his book was the reason young people wanted to attend the school. Sure it was tough and the tales of the rituals He described were harsh. For the student meant to attend a military school his story spoke to their need to challenge themself in a way only a military leadership school could.

During my sons knob year an educator friend suggested I read The Water is Wide as my introduction to his writing. I was hooked. I read everything Pat Conroy wrote my son’s knob year at The Citadel. His books helped me understand why my son and so many of his friends were attracted to The Citadel and it’s culture. When I got to his book, My Losing Season, I found I had more in common with Pat than I realized. While he played college basketball for alosing team, I was a manager for a men’s college basketball team. He even wrote about people I knew from the University of Richmond, my alma mater and the nemesis of The Citadel in his book. After reading My Losing Season I was moved to write to Pat Conroy. I doubt he ever read my letter. I felt compelled to write to him. I had never written to another author, but his books and his complete vulnerability in sharing his very personal stories touched me deeply.

My first Parents Weekend in 2007 I was visiting with my son’s host family at a tailgate party. I shared with his host parents and their good friends how much I enjoyed Pat’s books. As it turned out they were friends with Pat for years. They told stories of Pat visiting them while they were serving overseas. They also told stories of his generosity and caring for the Corps of Cadets. I didn’t realize it until much later in the afternoon, but the tailgate we were attending was hosted by Mary and Greg Smith. Pat wrote about their friendship in his books.

Since 2007 I have had the opportunity to hear Pat speak at book festivals. He has signed books for me and thousands of others. I am very glad now that during an open mic Q&A at the Marcus Jewish Community Center Book Festival I gathered my courage to go to the mic in front of 2,000 people to thank Pat Conroy. At the time my son was a cadet and I was the chair of the Georgia Citadel Parents Group, a group that started years ago through the Atlanta Citadel Club. When I started at the mic I said, “I am the chair of the Georgia Citadel Parents group.” Pat interrupted me and to great laughter in the crowd said, “Oh Boy, here it comes.” I went on, “My son and many of his friends are now at The Citadel, many because they read your book. I just want to thank you.” To my surprise the crowd gathered began to applaud loudly.

I am saddened today to know of his passing. I rejoice with legions of his fans that he lived and wore the ring.


An Unexpected Citadel Related Surprise

Pat Conroy atEach Labor Day weekend my daughter and I attend the AJC Decatur Book Festival. It is a wonderful event, the largest independent book festival in the country. We enjoy meeting the authors, browsing the booths, and the fun of just being there. We never know who we will see.

This year we decided to start our visit at the session at the First Baptist Church of Decatur. Pat Conroy was scheduled to speak. Chelle and I arrived early enough to sit toward the front of the sanctuary. As we were deciding where to sit a gentlemen stood up to call us over. He said, “You don’t know me, but I know your husband and I recognized you from the photos in his blog.” As it turns out this gentleman, Randy McDow and my husband knew each other from their time at Georgia Tech. Randy introduced us to his father and we joined them in their pew.

As we talked, Randy mentioned that his father, Thomas F. McDow, was mentioned in The Boo, a book by Pat Conroy, for walking 120 tours in the quickest time recorded at the school. A tour is a punishment which requires a cadet to walk with their rifle for 50 minutes back and forth across the barracks quad for each tour given. After the tours were walked Thomas had his shoes bronzed. He retained one shoe and gave the other to assistant commandant, Lt. Col.Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, also called The Boo. The story is documented on The Citadel’s Daniel Library website.

After telling us the story Thomas showed me a photo of the shoe and the plaque on the shoe. We also took photos together to show my husband. It was the perfect visit to start off our experience at the book festival, especially since we were there to hear Pat Conroy, the well known author and a graduate of The Citadel. You just never know when you’ll meet a legend.

Thomas McDow and the bronze boot
Thomas F McDow holds up the photo of his “bronzed boot.” L-R Chelle Leary, Dorie Griggs, Thomas F. McDow. photo by Randy McDow
The plaque
The plaque under the “bronze boot”
Dorie and the McDow's
L-R Dorie Griggs, Thomas F. McDow, Randy McDow

The Citadel and the Fellowship of THE Ring

The Ring
photo by Stanley Leary

When I was 13 years old my brother gave me The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Years later my oldest son became interested in the tales of J.R.R. Tolkien. The books involve a tale of the One Ring that controls the others.

Years later I was struck at the similarities and differences between the One Ring and The Ring the senior cadets at The Citadel receive their senior year. The One Ring is one of power over people. The Citadel ring that a graduate wears is also one of power. The Citadel ring’s strength is in the power of friendship forged through the tough training the cadets endure over their four years. The power of The Citadel ring goes beyond the graduates and in many cases influences the families of the one who wears the ring.

One of the most moving accounts of the bond forged by the graduates who wear the ring is told by Pat Conroy. He told this story in his book, My Losing Season, and he also told the story in his commencement address in 2001. I can’t read the story without tears welling up in my eyes. Talk to many graduates and their families and they can tell you their own story of the Ring. In her book In the Company of Men, Nancy Mace details her father’s story of recovering his lost ring in the swampy fields of Vietnam.

Two weeks from now the Class of 2013 will receive their rings. It is a huge weekend for seniors and their families. My son used to say that the ring, and what it symbolizes, is more important to him than his diploma. Everyone who graduates from a college or university gets a diploma. Not everyone can earn the right to wear The Citadel Ring.

Over the past five years I have had the privilege to see what the power of this ring can do. As the chair of the Georgia Citadel Parents Group for a few years I had the honor of witnessing the kindness of the members of the Atlanta Citadel Club when they heard a cadet was in need. One had trouble meeting the out-of-state tuition and was helped by a graduate. Another family had a crisis and weren’t sure they could get their cadet home, the alumni offered to pay for a flight. If a knob needed a ride back to campus from Georgia I just posted the need and within minutes offers to help would pour in.

This giving nature also applies to the families of the cadets. A family suffered the death of a grandparent. Their cadet couldn’t afford to travel to the funeral. A ticket arrived in the mail paid for by another family who heard of their need. When a cadet or graduate is deployed the moral support for the family of the soldier pours in.

Each year cadets and graduates are sent overseas to war. When one Citadel Mom learned that current cadets were going to war she founded The Citadel Heroes Project. Volunteers donate items and cards that are sent to the deployed cadets and graduates a few times a year. It is a huge effort that means so much to the recipients.

A young graduate died just months after graduation and before he reported to his first duty station. The roommate of the deceased was left behind to tie up the loose ends. A few of us attended the memorial service in Summerall Chapel. I was asked to read a poem during the service on behalf of the Citadel Family Association. A few of us moms learned it was difficult for the surviving roommate to go to the mail box each day and see mail to his deceased classmate/roommate/good friend. The Citadel Moms each took a week and sent baked goods gift cards for coffee shops and food. For eight weeks the surviving roommate went to his mailbox to find these gifts of love and support from his Citadel Moms.

Recently it was brought to the attention of a group of alumni that a few seniors, due to a number of circumstances, couldn’t afford to pay off the balance on their rings. Within a matter of hours alumni of all types, young and old, male and female, came together to donate the money needed to pay off the rings for these deserving seniors. When parents of current cadets and graduates heard of this effort, they too wanted to help. It was an amazing show of support by the members of The Citadel family. On October 12 the qualified cadets will receive their rings with the rest of their class.

Wearing the ring is something I will never experience. It was my son and his classmates that proved they were worthy of the honor of joining the Long Gray Line of graduates. They are family, not just classmates. I can tell you being a family member of the person who wears the ring makes you part of their extended Citadel family.

Pat Conroy used the sentence “I wear the ring.” in The Lords of Discipline to summarize the importance of his time at The Citadel and the bond he shares with others who wear the ring. The cadets who went through the rigors of the 4th Class System understand that sentence differently than any one else who reads it.

The parents and family members of the cadets and graduates can only get glimpses of what it means.

Bravo ’11 wear the ring. Photo by Stanley Leary
A group of friends who met through their cadets time at The Citadel.
photo by Stanley Leary