In his first year at CMC, Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives Patrick Jay “Pat” Conroy ’72 found an early calling – in an Improvisational Theatre class at Scripps College.
Improv performers must work their way out of an unknown situation by rapidly finding a common bond with those around them. Conroy, both cerebral and sociable, was hooked. “I knew I would pursue a public career, not a private one,” Conroy said, and improv fit his desire to perform and connect.
He and other students in the class, including Robin Williams ’73, formed the improv comedy group Synergy Trust, which would later be called Karma Pie. Conroy performed in the group’s weekly shows (for which they charged 25 cents admission) until he graduated.
“The single most influential class in all that education, for what I have gone on to do in my life, was that Improvisational Theater class,” Conroy said. “I’ve always felt I could enter into any situation and handle whatever came up.”
Conroy was invited to return to Claremont for commencement activities months before he was pushed out of his position by Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), then allowed to remain on the job after a public uproar and expressions of support by House members of both parties.
Conroy declined to discuss the recent conflict over his House Chaplain’s job, saying “it’s time to build a level of trust, and talk about how to make the Chaplain’s office better. You don’t do that in public.” He was happy, however, to reflect on his years at CMC.
Conroy has kept in touch with his CMC classmates and professors, including John Roth and Ward Elliott, and has visited campus for reunions. In 2014, he participated in an Athenaeum panel on Pope Francis.
In Congress, Conroy spent time with David Dreier ’75, who served in the House until 2013. “He has a laser-like focus on the concerns of members,” Dreier said of Conroy. “I observed more than a few chaplains and Pat Conroy instantly seemed to know all 435 members of the People’s House.”
Along with his improvisational theatre training, Conroy’s time at CMC was full of challenges, triumphs and, according to his contemporaries, a good deal of fun in Wohlford Hall, where he lived for three years after transferring from the University of Virginia.
Conroy went on to law school after CMC, and practiced law on an Indian reservation before entering the priesthood and completing three master’s degrees.
“He’s the last person I would’ve thought to have opted for a vocation as a priest,” said John McNiff ’72, a close friend. “He said he wanted to be a U.S. Senator,” McNiff said.
Penn Fix ’72, another Wohlford Hall friend, recalled Conroy as “a very, very funny guy.” The early improv shows, were “the most hilarious thing I’ve witnessed in my life,” he said.
While CMC friends recall Conroy as something of the life of the party – Professor Elliott said Conroy’s guitar and vocal rendition of the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon” was a crowd favorite at sing-along parties held at his house – they also remember Conroy as driven and devout.
Conroy roomed for one year in Wohlford with Wayne Akiyama ’74. Akiyama was among CMC’s most versatile runners; he and Conroy decided to live together to push themselves at track. They began each day around 6 a.m. with a run through the five colleges and town before breakfast. Both Akiyama and Conroy would be inducted into the CMS Hall of Fame for their distance running achievements.
Conroy and a handful of other Catholic students, including McNiff and Fix, attended mass most Sundays together – after Conroy had already put in 15 miles of running – then had brunch in Collins. What Conroy’s friends didn’t know then was that after they returned to the dorm, Conroy would go on two additional five-mile runs. “I ran 100 miles a week at CMC, front-loading the miles so I could taper off for Friday or Saturday meets,” Conroy said. “Wayne Akiyama and I could eat everyone under the table and not gain weight.”
Conroy’s dedication to conditioning enabled him to beat expectations. Fix recalled a meet in which Conroy was not expected to win, but pulled ahead to victory, drawing resounding cheers from the stadium crowd. “He wasn’t the fastest runner, but he had great stamina,” Fix said. “He could just run, and run, and run.”
That race, Conroy said, was the 1971 SCIAC three-mile championship, an event in which he was ranked seventh in the league going into the meet. “The crowd went crazy because I out-kicked the prohibitive favorite from Oxy,” he said.
CMC, Conroy said, taught him that commitment and preparation were as important as talent. “I wasn’t at the top of my class, because many of my peers were smarter or brighter, but my discipline always gave me confidence I could handle the work,” he said. “My athletic discipline also reinforced focused study and rest time.”
Balancing a 100-mile weekly training program with academics, improv comedy, and an engaged social life paid off after college as well. At law school, Conroy said, “I got my work done by Friday night, while the others were working for eight to 10 hours on Saturday and Sunday. They never learned the discipline and focus that I did.”
Conroy also said it is important that today’s CMC students combine drive and focus with an openness to venture into the unknown, as he did with improv comedy, and, after college, shifting his aspirations from politics to the priesthood. “Try something you’ve never imagined. It’s easy to think at your age you’ve got everything figured out. If you’re too focused on one thing, you can’t see any other possibilities.”