The Magazine

Tom Kelly, 1923-2010

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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Tom Kelly, who died last week at 86, was the funniest man I ever knew and one of the most talkative. It used to puzzle me that he didn’t want to travel.

Tom Kelly, 1923-2010

He was a newspaperman, after all, an observer of the ways of men and institutions in the capital of a country becoming the most powerful on earth. He’d unmasked corruption in police departments, infiltrated extremist groups, covered murders and assassinations as a reporter for four newspapers. He’d recounted at book length the rise of one paper, The Imperial Post. How could someone so engaged not hanker to go find out what was over the horizon?

But the longer I knew him, the more I came to appreciate his contentment. He seemed to exemplify— although I never heard him cite it​—the famous phrase of Booker T. Washington, “Cast down your bucket where you are.”

Tom lived almost his whole life on the block where he was born, in the 19th-century neighborhood behind the U.S. Capitol. He walked to high school at the Jesuits’ Gonzaga College, and grew up sledding on the Capitol grounds. So did his kids. His funeral was at the church where he and they were baptized and all three daughters were married. 

In his later years, strolling the tree-lined streets dense with associations was his refreshment. I bumped into him once in Stanton Park, near his house and mine, and asked him whether any neighborhood kid had ever climbed the equestrian statue there of Nathanael Greene and taken a seat behind the general. He didn’t know of one that had, but he did remember, back in the Hoover administration, when the statue had toppled off its pedestal in a storm, and horse and rider had landed upside down.

Tom’s only decade away from Capitol Hill began courtesy of World War II, and it gave him a vocation, a wife, and some of his greatest stories. He joined the Navy and spent part of his service patrolling the coast north of Boston on one of the last sailing ships in the fleet, a requisitioned three-masted schooner named Guinevere. The Navy sent him to college at Bloomsburg State Teachers College, then Penn State. He had worked as a copy boy at the Washington Post in his teens, so he studied journalism.

It was in New Orleans, where he took a job at the Item, that Tom found the beautiful, canny, and enterprising Marguerite Lelong—the “fountain” from which all good things had flowed to him, he said on her 60th birthday—a wife of noble character if ever there was one. She had a daily newspaper column at 17. She knew at first sight that she would marry Tom.

He loved to tell how he had courted her, on a ferry you could ride all night for 5 cents, and on excursions to the leper colony at Carville. The grounds were beautiful and gracious, befitting the sugar plantation it had been, and the museum it now is. The extensive complex was run by Tom’s aunt, Sister Theresa, a Daughter of Charity, who apparently was pleased to provide the setting for cheap dates.

Tom and Marguerite married and moved back to Washington, to the house on Constitution Avenue. Marguerite looked after Tom’s parents till they died, and she gave birth to three daughters and a son (while practically running the Democratic precinct on the side). She cooked and he wisecracked and the family grew.

Then, in a brilliant and audacious stroke, Marguerite masterminded the family’s move to the big house on the corner, vintage 1870, with a tower and verandas front and side, where as a boy Tom had earned pocket money carrying in firewood. There she spread her wings as a hostess New Orleans style, throwing dinner dances and ice cream socials, book parties and wedding receptions, and Tom and she both had offices. For the last decades of his working life, Tom freelanced from home.

Most important, the big, welcoming house became the headquarters for their vital work of friendship. There was space for the neighborhood kids to put on, for invited audiences, the plays Tom wrote and directed them in, like the murder mystery “Ten Little Suspects.” In the comfortable corner room on the ground floor, Tom counseled generations of aspiring writers to regard adjectives with suspicion and strike out all unnecessary words.

Tom’s gallant approach to life showed itself not least in his bereavement. His son Michael was killed in April 2003, in a humvee accident while he was embedded as a journalist with the Third Infantry advancing on Baghdad. Never bitter, Tom worked on a book about Michael. And he savored the more the dedication of Michael’s own book, Martyrs’ Day: “To my father, Tom Kelly, for teaching me.”

Tom Kelly taught many, including eight grandchildren, and inspired more. And how he made us laugh. 

Claudia Anderson

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