A Life in Words

As colleagues celebrate the work of journalist Michael Kelly, a father honors his son - and a family tradition.

April 21, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a rambling Victorian home on Capitol Hill, the father of Michael Kelly, the first American journalist killed in Iraq, wakes to the same ritual. He descends the stairs, slowly, careful that his 80-year-old legs don't send him tumbling. Then, at a cluttered desk just off the kitchen, the veteran newsman mourns the way his son would.

He writes.

"Michael was as brave as a lion, merry as a grig, wise as an owl and fresh as a spring breeze," he typed at his computer one morning, trying to put an opening paragraph on his son's life. "He was named after his Irish grandfather to make it clear that he was entitled to be himself, but he was also part of an eternity."

The words are Tom Kelly's way of trying to fix the unfixable. But attempting to right the wrong of loss seems appropriate for a man whose son once described him in a column as "Mr. Fixit." It is this essay, "Growing Up With Mr. Fixit," that Tom Kelly returns to most often these days, reading about a father who'd do anything to defend his family.

The softly nostalgic writing is not how his son made his name in the rest of the world - rather, Michael Kelly rose to national prominence through blistering coverage as a political writer and war correspondent. A new book of Kelly's collected writings, Things Worth Fighting For, includes his last columns - coverage of the invasion of Baghdad for The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Post. He was traveling with a staff sergeant in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division when their Humvee came under enemy fire and flipped into a canal, killing them both. Kelly was 46.

The depth of Kelly's work will be celebrated tonight when journalists such as Ted Koppel, Maureen Dowd and Bob Woodward read from his book at a tribute in Washington, using the occasion as a kind of public memorial.

But a year after his death, there are private memorials, too, and every day, Tom Kelly tends to his.

"If the Capitol dome had been high enough, he would have grown up in its shadow," he typed in his study, recalling his son's youth. "When Mike was small, I would say, `Hold the fort!' when I left for work in the morning, and he would do his best all day long. When he learned to read, he read `The Little Engine That Could,' over and over. He decided that what he lacked in talent he would make up by commitment. He had more talent than he knew or we knew."

On a recent morning at 420 Constitution Ave. N.E., the same street where Tom Kelly grew up and where he and his wife raised their four children, the father laughs frequently over memories of his only son. It's more of a loud snort, actually, one that Michael shared along with his father's round Irish face and love of the reporter's life.

But talking to Tom Kelly can be a pretty merry experience, especially when considering that the subject sometimes turns to death. At the funeral, he eulogized Kelly's accomplishments, talked about how in choosing to follow a job he loved, his son was lucky because he escaped a life of boredom or indifference.

Kelly had written about his father's tendency to do this - to find good in anything involving his children.

"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,' " Kelly wrote in "Mr. Fixit." If, for example, one of his children realized they were a duck trapped in the body of a human, he might fight it, but not if his child had himself "duckified" anyway.

"Oh," Kelly wrote, "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?"

The son knew his subject - a father who used praise and denial to keep hurt from his kids. Kelly wrote:

"Who can fix the world, even for one child? But its ridiculousness makes it great. In every life, there should be someone who believes that whatever goes wrong must be fixed, and if not fixed, must at least be made to go away."

In his kitchen, a pot of coffee brewing on the counter behind him, his son's work still scattered around the house, Tom Kelly is the white-haired overseer of a local institution: the Washington journalism family.

The family matriarch, Marguerite Kelly, who writes the "Family Almanac" column for The Washington Post, allowed journalism to seep through the walls of their house when the Kelly children were young. The Louisiana native would insist that the whole brood - Michael; his older sister, Katy; and his two younger sisters, Meg and Nell - eat dinner together while journalists and policymakers matched wits over their dining-room table.

Between Michael, his father and his sister Katy Kelly, a reporter for U.S. News and World Report, the Kellys have been nominated for eight Pulitzer Prizes. "We've been nominated for the Pulitzer more times than any family in the world and never won," says Tom Kelly, a longtime reporter for the now-defunct Washington Daily News.

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