By Marianna Levine
A popular Bridgehampton English teacher was mourned by his peers and students this past week after succumbing to a two-year battle with cancer.
Tom Kelly passed away at his home in North Sea at around 9 p.m. Tuesday, July 21, and many had thought he had the disease beat a year ago, according to his fellow English teacher, Nancy Nagel, who had worked with Kelly for 23 of his 24 year tenure at the school.
“He went through treatment and thought he was cancer free and then it came back, which makes this so much more difficult. But throughout he always had an upbeat outlook,” Nagel explains.
The following day Bridgehampton School principal Jack Pryor gathered faculty and staff together at the school to “come and reflect on Tom Kelly, the teacher and the man. It wasn’t sad. It was very serene and beautiful.”
Nagel explains, “It is so hard to adequately put into words what he gave to the school. Tom led by example. Former students came back to ask his advice. Everything I wrote I gave to him to look through. He gave so willingly of his time.”
Pryor agrees, “He was the ‘go to’ teacher when people needed advice.” And he further explains that Kelly had taught several generations of students and was a teacher, “embedded in our community.”
Proof of this lies in the fact that a diverse group of community members attended his funeral last Saturday, including members of the Bay Street Theatre, whom he worked with on the Young Playwrights Program, and Congressman Tim Bishop.
In 2007 Kelly started Bridgehampton’s AP English program, writing the program’s first curriculum which begun with only two students. Currently the school’s AP program has six students and it continues to grow with AP subjects now including History and Art.
Kelly’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kotz, who is currently Bridgehampton School Board’s President, spoke personally about Kelly.“(His) death is a great loss to our large extended family. I know that his students and colleagues will also miss him dearly. On every front he was a good man whose intellect, wit, and generosity were always apparent.”
Kelly, who’s originally from Queens, married Kotz’s sister Susanna Whelan, who grew up on the South Fork as part of a large East End family, and after spending several summers out here decided to move permanently to the area in 1985 when he accepted a teaching position at the Bridgehampton school.
His niece, and a former AP student of his, Olivia Kotz, reminisces that as an uncle, “Tom was the best – a great cook, and always at the beach.” Noting that even though he and her aunt were older than some of her other relatives they were “the cool aunt and uncle” one would want to hang out with.
As a teacher Olivia Kotz recalls, “you felt obligated to do your very best for him because you knew he did his best for you.”
Pryor elaborates on Kelly’s teaching legacy, “he always said you need to have compassion for the individual child you’re teaching otherwise you’re not going to be successful (as a teacher). He always knew who needed to be pushed and knew those who needed to be coddled.”
There was a wake for him on Thursday and Friday of the past week, and his funeral was held on Saturday July 25. Bridgehampton School had planned a candlelight vigil for students and the community on the evening of July 23, which was cancelled due to the heavy rains that night. Instead Pryor said the school is planning a memorial event on the first Friday after school starts, which will include his family, although it is being planned by Bridgehampton’s student council headed up by Nina Hemby.
Tom Kelly is survived by his wife Susanna Kelly and his three children, Rachel Cahill, Daniel and Sam Kelly, as well as two grandchildren John and Claire Cahill.