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I have just learned that my friend the Washington journalist Tom Kelly has died at age 86. What a wonderful man he was. He lived around the corner from me on Capitol Hill when I was there in the early 1990s, and he and his wife, Miss Marguerite, welcomed me and other young journalists into their home. I remember spending one Thanksgiving morning in Miss Marguerite’s kitchen, eating raw Potomac oysters a friend had brought in. Tom and Marguerite’s son was Michael Kelly, who was the first journalist killed in the second Iraq War. I remember when I got the call that Michael had died. It was my last day living in NYC in 2002. Stricken, I ran to the Franciscan parish on 31st St. in Manhattan, and went to confession (why? what did I have to confess?), and prayed and wept for a good long time. I didn’t know Michael, but I knew his mother and father, and how fiercely they loved him. I grieved for them.
From the WaPo obit:
In Washington, the Kellys were known for hosting large parties inspired by Marguerite’s New Orleans heritage, featuring Dixieland bands and crawfish. Ken Ringle, a retired Post reporter, wrote in an e-mail: “Their enormous dining room has always been a genuine salon where ideas were bandied about and joyously debated while Tom gestured from his end of the table and told stories with his memorable snorting little Irish laugh.”
Mr. Kelly, a diminutive Irishman who reminded friends of a mischievous Leprechaun, wrote annual Christmas plays in which he cast scads of neighborhood children. The plays, children’s stories with dialogue that doubled as political commentary, were always staged in the Kellys’ backyard before a crowd of parents.
It’s hard to express what a jolly, big-hearted fellow Tom was — but also the kind of old-style newsman who got his back up if his sense of justice were offended. Claudia Anderson, a Washington journalist and friend of the Kellys, has a great remembrance of Tom in the Weekly Standard. Excerpt:
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 Kelly is the kind of man you should want to be. He will be missed. Our deep sympathies to all the Kellys.
UPDATE: Oh joy! Reader Cathleen sends along this tribute to Tom his son Michael once wrote. I haven’t read this in years, and it’s just terrific. Excerpt:
An insane love, a failed grade, a lost job — there is nothing that befalls one of his children in which my father is not able to find “a marvelous experience.” This is not to say that he is irresponsible. If you (assuming you were one of his children) were to tell him that you had always felt yourself to be a duck trapped in the body of a human, and that you were determined to rectify the situation through trans-species surgery, he would argue (gently) against the idea. What about your mother’s feelings? he might say. And what about duck season, what about duck a l’orange?
But he would not say that no Kelly had ever been a duck and by God none was ever going to be one, or that he had not fought the Nazis and worked two jobs for 10 years to send you to college to have you spend the rest of your life sitting around on your tail bobbing for duckweed.
And if you went ahead and had yourself duckified anyway? Oh, he would proclaim it through the neighborhood: What a wonderful, what a brilliant, what a brave and clever and good thing this was to do — and what a duck you were! Was there ever such a duck?