A Blog for My Dad

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My father passed away on May 1st. This blog will, therefore, be a bit indulgent as I want to share some stories about the most influential historian in my life. 


My dad, Thomas Kelley, grew up just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, in a large Irish-Catholic family. His parents raised eight sons, all of whom served as altar boys at some point in their young lives. He studied history at Boston College in the early 1960s. I keep his History of Civilization textbooks in my office at home. Even before he passed away, I enjoyed thumbing through the texts and reading his hand-written notes in the margins – tiny windows into his life as a college student.


My dad enlisted in the Air Force upon graduation in 1966 – a choice that would keep him out of the draft and off the frontlines of combat but not immune to the long-term devastation of the war in Vietnam. As an air weapons controller he was unknowingly exposed to Agent Orange. Many, many years after his military deployments ended, the physical consequences of that service appeared, as it has for many Vietnam War-era veterans, in the form of Parkinson’s Disease, which he fought for the final twenty years of his life. 


When I was a child my Dad taught history at a high school and continued to serve part-time in the military, which brought us as a family to Washington, DC, in the summers. We spent countless hours at the museums of the Smithsonian Institute and my favorite quickly became the National Museum of American History. I can’t remember any of the exhibits, just a general sense of enjoyment in learning the stories the museum shared with us, and listening to my Dad explain the historical events that were foreign to me as an elementary school student.


It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I began to understand the role my Dad had played in the war in Vietnam and the impact the experience had on his life. Going through old boxes in the basement one weekend my Dad showed me a remnant of his time overseas – a small booklet he used for keeping track of his pay while stationed in Thailand. The year was 1970 and at the back of the book, in tiny letters, my Dad – then 26 years old – had written “Richard Nixon is a liar.” He shared with me that his unit conducted secret air operations over Laos, a neighboring nation of Vietnam that President Nixon swore was not being brought into the conflict. The short sentence, he said, was a reminder of the disconnect between his military orders and the president’s words – and a way to maintain some semblance of reality for himself through the difficult experience.


Two weeks after my Dad passed away we started summer session at my college. It was the first time in my career that I did not talk to my Dad before classes started about what I am teaching. That realization hit me hard as I entered the building on a gorgeous New England spring morning in May. 


My Dad and I did not always agree on politics or our interpretations of historical events, but we always had lively conversations that pushed me to sharpen my arguments. When I started to teach I relied on his decades of secondary classroom experiences to help me find effective ways to deal with the challenges I faced. And, most importantly, I learned from my father that in a truly successful classroom the personal connection between the students and their teacher – including feelings of affirmation and belonging that can be cemented as academic content is transferred from teacher to student – are more significant and long-lasting than even the knowledge being taught. For this lesson, and many many others, I’m grateful. 


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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.