Some of the biggest names in American fiction celebrated the life and work of Frank Conroy with much of what he loved — great writing, music and laughter.
Conroy, the acclaimed writer and longtime director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, died earlier this month at age 69 after a battle with cancer.
At a memorial on campus, planned months before his death, Conroy was remembered for his talent as a writer, his wry sense of humor, skill as a jazz pianist and his dedication to the writing program and the students he mentored for 18 years.
“To enhance the stature of an institution that has already been legendary for decades is no small achievement,” said Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, a workshop teacher who was hired by Conroy in 1989. Robinson won the Pulitzer this year for her novel, “Gilead.”
“He saw himself as presiding over and sheltering a community of writers, teaching, of course, ... but still exceptionally, he saw himself as allowing these young writers time to develop in an atmosphere full of respect for literature.”
The Friday program featured readings from noted workshop alumni such as John Irving and T.C. Boyle.
Irving, author of such novels as “Cider House Rules” and “The World According to Garp,” read the first draft of an unpublished short story in which Conroy figures prominently. Irving, who taught at the workshop in the mid-1970s, also read the first few pages of his new novel, “Until I Find You.”
“He was an especially good friend to me in a time of need,” Irving said.
Boyle, whose books include “The Road to Wellville” and “Drop City,” called Conroy a friend, mentor and big brother.
Conroy made a memorable literary debut in 1967 with “Stop-Time,” his memoir that chronicled his troubled, nomadic childhood. It was nominated for a National Book Award that year.
He took his lean, lucid style into journalism, wrote short stories and essays for a variety of magazines and, in the 1980s, served as literary director at the National Endowment of the Arts. He also was an accomplished jazz pianist who played in New York City clubs and won a Grammy in 1986 for writing the liner notes for a Frank Sinatra album.
After his stint with the NEA, Conroy moved to Iowa City and became the workshop’s fourth director. Founded in 1936, it was the nation’s first creative writing program and boasts alumni and past faculty such as Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor.