A conversation with Millie Bennett and Jonathan Haupt of the Pat Conroy Literary Center
Describing his Conroy Center intern Millie Bennett, executive director Jonathan Haupt says, “She’s a Swiss Army knife of talents and interests: storyteller, visual artist, singer, actor, student athlete, AP everything.”
Millie demurs. “Well, maybe not AP everything.” Apparently, it’s just four classes.
I’m sitting with Millie and Jonathan in the new, marvelously improved, Pat Conroy Literary Center at 601 Bladen Street, surrounded by – what else? – colorful bookshelves. The teenaged intern and her middle-aged mentor communicate in playful banter grounded in mutual respect and affection. He repeatedly praises her gifts, she repeatedly calls him “okay,” and it’s all in good fun.
A junior at Beaufort High, Millie is one of three Conroy Center interns – along with founding intern Holland Perryman and Alisha Arora – and she’s only been there for about six months. But it’s been a very busy six months, during which time she’s interviewed authors on camera, presented to English teachers at statewide conferences, organized local children’s events, designed logos, and more.
So how do these Conroy Center internships work, exactly? Do the kids have to commit a certain number of hours a week? Do they run errands? Is there clerical work involved?
“No clerical work,” says Jonathan. “Nobody’s over here making copies.”
“In fact, we call him to print things for us,” Millie laughs. “I don’t have a printer, and it saves me from driving to Staples!”
“It’s true,” says Jonathan, smiling. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“You know, when I was doing this at USC Press – mentoring interns – it was all about getting something done that the press needed. An intern was a means to an end. If they got some experience out of it that was beneficial in the world – and they assure me they did – that was sort of secondary. The goal was to do the work of the press. Here at the Conroy Center, the internship is the goal.”
So what flipped that idea upside down for Jonathan? He says working with these super-bright teenagers over the past months and years “just exploded my imagination about what the internship could be.”
“It’s really about trying to create another generation of Pat Conroys,” he says. “Not necessarily writers, but good servant leaders, people who give in any way they can to their various communities. It’s about turning these interns into the best humans they can be, through the experiences we can give them.”
I ask Millie to share some highlights of her own internship, so far.
“I especially loved meeting Bill Dufford,” she answers without hesitation.
Bill Dufford was the principal at Beaufort High when Pat Conroy was a student in the early 1960s. Jonathan took his interns to visit with the 95-year-old at his home, where, he says, “they learned firsthand about Bill’s transformation from scion of the Jim Crow South to social justice champion and ally, inspired in part by lunchtime conversations with Pat about integration.”
Millie elaborates. “It was so interesting to talk to a man from his time, who had both taught Pat Conroy and been taught by Pat Conroy . . . to see that dynamic of these two different generations, teaching each other.”
“It’s important for my interns to know that young people can actually change the lives of adults,” says Jonathan. In fact, he says, he’s living proof that “mentoring relationships go both ways.”
“I sometimes feel like I have three 17-year-old life coaches,” he laughs.
Mentoring has become an important part of the Conroy Center’s educational mission, but Jonathan Haupt didn’t always see himself in that role – not until a mentor of his own set him straight, that is.
“Conroy used to tell me I was wasting my potential as a publisher, that I really needed to be writing and teaching,” he says. “I didn’t self-identify as either of those things at the time. But all Pat had to do to prove himself right, and me wrong, was die . . . which created this possibility where those are now the two things I spend most of my time doing.”
Long story short: Soon after Pat’s death in 2016, Jonathan left his longtime job as director of USC Press in Columbia and moved to Beaufort, taking a flyer on a fledgling organization called the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Six years later, here we are.
“So, Pat won that argument,” he laughs.
The mentoring part of his gig clearly suits Jonathan, who takes obvious joy in watching his interns meet every challenge he throws at them, and then some.
“Tell her about Kaylynn Bayron,” he prompts Millie.
“Oh, right,” she responds. “That was such a wonderful opportunity!”
It’s not every day a girl gets to meet, much less interview, one of her favorite authors, which is exactly what Millie did a few months ago – along with Jonathan and Alisha – when bestselling YA novelist Kaylynn Bayron was in town for the Bluffton Book Festival.
“I had read and loved her book Cinderella is Dead sophomore year, before I’d even heard of the Conroy Center,” says Millie. “So I was so excited to meet her! I got to read her book This Poison Heart and interview her about it.”
“It was great, because she’s really the only queer romance
author I’d ever read before,” continues Millie, who identifies as queer, herself. “It was wonderful to be able to connect to that, because I just don’t see a lot of queer representation, especially in books.”
And now Millie and Jonathan are co-authoring a book review of yet another Bayron novel, her latest, This Wicked Fate, for the Charleston Post & Courier. Conroy Center interns have been reviewing YA books for the P&C for a couple of years now, ever since Holland Perryman had her first byline there.
“They’re the first and only teenage book reviewers at the Post & Courier,” Jonathan says, beaming with mentorly pride.
Jonathan and Millie will also be co-presenting “I Was Born to Be in a Library: Pat Conroy’s Great Love of Libraries” on April 6th, during National Library Week. (Read more about that here.) Jonathan calls it the “Free Bird” of his Conroy repertoire; he has five or six presentations available, but people just keep requesting this one, over and over.
He describes it as “a love letter to libraries and librarians as a central force, not only in Pat’s life, but in the lives of so many others. Libraries were essential to Pat Conroy. Not just for the books . . . but also, as a child of abuse, as a safe place to go outside of the home. Which is what libraries serve as to many members of our community to this day.”
I ask how long the presentation lasts, and Millie immediately replies, “Fifty-eight minutes and 13 seconds.”
I laugh, but apparently it’s no joke. “She’s very good with numbers,” Jonathan quips.
I know I got the minutes right,” Millie assures me. “The seconds could be off.”
This smart, multi-gifted girl who wants to major in visual arts (or “something creative”) in college – while minoring in African American or Women’s Studies – is very, very funny.
Her sense of humor, along with her various creative skills, should come in handy when she works as a counselor at Camp Conroy this summer. There, she’ll help younger kids write, illustrate, and publish their own books, under the tutelage of adult writing and art instructors. Millie’s 7th grade sister, Becca, will be one of those campers.
“I’m really looking forward to Camp Conroy. I’ll be in a superior position and get to boss my sister around,” she laughs.
But before that – April 3rd, in fact – she’ll be volunteering with other high school students as a “bookmark” at the Beaufort Human Library, a joint project of the Conroy Center and the Beaufort Library, for which she’s also designing the “book covers.” (See more about that fascinating event here.)
Winding up our interview, I ask Jonathan and Millie if there’s anything else they’d like our readers to know, especially about the upcoming National Library Week.
“It might be the busiest week of my life,” says Millie. “I have an AP research presentation, the APUSH test, our Conroy presentation, my last lacrosse game of the season, senior night for lacrosse…”
“I’m coming to that,” Jonathan interjects. “I got out of a poetry reading on Hilton Head to come to that…”
I ask Millie how she plans to handle everything on her plate. She tells me she’ll just push through, knowing that the following week is Spring Break.
Will she be taking a family vacation? Lounging on the beach at Hunting Island? Maybe just sleeping ‘til noon every day?
“Wait! Actually, I’m touring colleges that week,” she remembers.
But she doesn’t seem fazed. She’s a Conroy Center intern, after all. Downtime is not a high priority. Just ask her mentor.
To learn more about the Pat Conroy Literary Center, visit www.patconroyliterarycenter.org