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Frank Conroy, 69, memoirist, director of noted workshop

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Frank Conroy, the memoirist and longtime director of the celebrated University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, died Wednesday. He was 69.

Mr. Conroy died at his home in Iowa City of colon cancer, said James Alan McPherson, acting co-director of the workshop. ''Frank took a great program and made it an extraordinary one," McPherson said.

Mr. Conroy won literary praise with his 1967 book ''Stop-Time," which chronicled his growing up in homes that included a Florida shack, a snowy cabin, and a tiny Manhattan apartment. The impressionistic memoir was nominated for a National Book Award.

It was a classic story of innocence, violence, and violation, as elemental as his mastery of the yo-yo and as troubling as a gang of boys -- Mr. Conroy included -- tormenting a schoolmate, punch by punch. His other works never surpassed it.

Instead, he gained even greater stature, and welcome stability, by helping others. In 1987, he traded life on the East Coast for the slower-paced Midwest when he accepted the job of directing the Writers' Workshop, the nation's oldest and most prestigious creative writing program.

Famously demanding, to the point of reducing students to tears, he held the post for 18 years before announcing his resignation last year.

''You have to get across to them that the work is separate from them. That's what good work is: a life independent of the life of the author," Mr. Conroy said. ''So you have unintended qualities in the prose -- personal tics, pretending to write, instead of really writing. All writers have to go through this and get it past them. I try to make that quicker for them rather than longer."

ZZ Packer, Nathan Englander, and Thisbe Nissen were among the young writers he taught.

Novelist Chris Offut, a student in Mr. Conroy's first class and now a visiting faculty member at the workshop, credits Mr. Conroy and ''Stop-Time" for his decision to pursue writing.

''I feel as I've lost a person who was most important to me as a writer," said Offut. ''He's had an enormous impact on American literature because of the seriousness with which he took his role here at the workshop."

Mr. Conroy's books also include ''Time & Tide, A Walk Through Nantucket," a collection of essays entitled ''Dogs Bark, But the Caravan Rolls On," ''Body & Soul," and ''Midair." He sold his first short story when he was a senior at Haverford College, dabbled in journalism, wrote short stories and essays for a variety of magazines, and served as literary director at the National Endowment of the Arts.

A lover of jazz, Mr. Conroy also played piano in clubs in New York for several years and befriended such musicians as Keith Jarrett and Wynton Marsalis. Mr. Conroy's friend David Halberstam once called him ''innately hip, the first true counterculture person I had ever met."

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