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How Tom Sawyer changed my life

Remembering Tom Kelly

For most readers of the New York Times obituary on Feb. 14, 2016, it was a case of “title tells all.”

“Tommy Kelly, 90, Hollywood’s Tom Sawyer” specified the one fact about the deceased likely to be of general interest. In 1937, after a prolonged search for the perfect Tom in his adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic novel (a forerunner of his later search for the perfect Scarlett O’Hara), David O. Selznick selected a 12-year-old “stickball-playing Cinderella” from the East Bronx for a short-lived acting career in the movie capital.

For this reader, though, the point of contact was a sentence about the child-actor’s afterlife: “He taught high school English in Culver City, Calif.” (Culver City was the location of Selznick International Pictures, which produced The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.)

I was a student at Culver City High School from 1957-60 and had an encounter with Tom Kelly that changed my life profoundly — and by doing so, altered the lives, slightly or significantly, of some portion of my future students.

The stranger

Tom Kelly, 1960

Tom Kelly, Culver City High yearbook, 1960.

Like many high schools in America, Culver High featured a “career day” for seniors in their last semester before graduation. Students filled out a form asking about their aspirations for a permanent occupation, with the promise that each senior would have an opportunity to hear from an adult in the field who could provide useful information about how to navigate toward that goal. I wrote down that I wanted to be a writer.

Some weeks later I received a notice that Mr. Kelly, administrator of the program, wished to see me in his office. I knew him by sight but had never met him. I had no idea of his movie background. When I entered his office he flashed me the kind of unhappy grimace that signaled unwelcome news to come. Reserved in manner, he clearly wanted to make this meeting as subdued and brief as possible.

Of the nearly 400 graduating seniors, he informed me, I was the only one who requested a writer for the career day interview. The school had no writers from the community signed up to meet with students. “And I don’t know what to do about it,” Mr. Kelly audibly sighed. He was not acting; he genuinely suffered from the disappointing news he had just delivered. I told him, with obvious regret in my voice, that I had anticipated this outcome and that I would be willing to join one of the large groups that would meet with adults in business, teaching, or government service — the three largest categories.

Between yes and no

A brief interval ensued and we simply stared at each other. Seemingly even the best-laid plans in an efficient educational system left victims behind. “Let me think about this,” Mr. Kelly said as he turned his swivel chair to gaze out the window.

I was one of a dozen students in the college-prep seminar in humanities and would be chosen at the end of the term as valedictorian. I had just published an essay I hope never to see again on modern fiction and painting in the school’s literary magazine. As I watched Mr. Kelly wrestle with options and ethics, I appreciated for the first time the everyday pressures on a high school administrator.

After the kind of long pause sometimes described as “pregnant” he swiveled back to face me and said, “It’s not fair that every student should get their choice except you. If you want to be a writer, you should meet a writer.

“Here’s what I can do. Robert Kirsch, who’s a novelist and book editor of The Los Angeles Times, is a friend. I can ask him if he would let you visit him at his office. He may only be able to give you 20 minutes — you have to expect that. But he’ll tell you firsthand what it’s like to be a writer. Could you get downtown on your own steam?”

Yes, I said. I frequently rode the bus to the Los Angeles Public Library on 5th Street, which gave me easy pedestrian access to the Times building at 1st and Spring.

“I’ll let you know what he says.” Mr. Kelly walked me out a ways into the school. “Don’t be surprised if he says no,” he warned me again.

Kirsch said yes.

Another stranger

Poetry Los Angeles book cover, Goldstein
I found the editor in a cramped office with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and piles of books for review on rugs and desks. He showed little enthusiasm for the meeting and barked abruptly as I was seating myself, “You want to be a writer. Which writers are you reading?”

I thought afterward that he was braced for some gushing comments about The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road. I told him the truth: that I had read everything in print by Albert Camus.

Kirsch gave me a startled look. “He’s my favorite writer too! Which books do you like best?”

We spent an hour talking about Camus’ brilliant work in fiction, essay, and drama, and his tragic death by car accident a few months earlier.

Finally, Kirsch said he had to get back to work. We shook hands and he held onto mine in a firm clasp. “Wait a minute,” he ordered. There was another one of those contemplative pauses that seemed to come with adulthood. A long gazing away and then an earnest looking back. A sense that the scaffold of one’s future identity was being erected of durable possibilities, plank upon plank.

“Are you willing to try your hand at a book review for our weekend section?” he asked. “If you are, I’ll give you a book right now. If I like your review I’ll publish it. If I don’t you’ll never hear from me again.”

Of course I said yes and he put John Masters’ novel of Victorian India, The Venus of Konpara, in my hand. I left the building exhilarated, certain that I would write a publishable review and that my glamorous life as a writer would begin from the day it appeared in print.

Poetry Los Angeles

Editor’s note: Listen to this mini-podcast as Goldstein showcases work from his book of literary criticism, “Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City” (The University of Michigan Press). The book features 40 poems about L.A., with chapters on Hollywood, the freeway, the Pacific Ocean, and more. Goldstein provides historical, critical, and cultural context throughout. Eloise Klein Healy, Joy Harjo, and Ice Cube are among the artists represented.

The artist at work

A Room in California, book cover

A longer memoir would follow my steps forward, all of them proceeding from Tom Kelly’s refusal to make it easier on himself by turning a blind eye to a student’s ambition. It would include my showing my Times reviews to the arts editor of the UCLA Daily Bruin and being given the job of bi-weekly book reviewer, which I held for two years before becoming arts editor in turn.

In that same magical year of 1960, my freshman composition instructor, the novelist-to-be Carolyn See, worked overtime to help me chasten my prose style and realize my goals as a writer. The republic of letters, she taught me, is welcoming to the young candidate who never loses faith in ultimate rewards.

My hypothetical memoir would sketch my progression from chance to chance (good and bad luck blended, as in every career), publication to publication, till the blessed day in 1970 when I began teaching at the University of Michigan.

Here I replicated Mr. Kelly’s encouragement of young talent, in the classroom, in committees and workshops, and as editor of the University’s flagship journal of scholarly and creative writing, Michigan Quarterly Review. During my 32 years in that position I selected abundant manuscripts from beginning authors, some of them now eminent, to share space with established writers. Always, I was aided by undergraduate and graduate student interns whom I mentored as they worked at shaping their own paths toward literary distinction.

Past and present

Tom Kelly’s Times obituary has caused me to look far backward during this retirement year. How to account for the vividness and emotional power of those scenes in 1960 involving a teenager bent upon mature achievement and the gatekeepers who may have recalled episodes of grace in their own seedtime and opened a gate to let me pass through? (Genesis 8:22: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest shall not cease.”)

The full force of one counselor’s seminal act makes me as grateful in retrospect as it did on that fateful day 56 years ago. Tom Kelly was no trickster like Tom Sawyer. He listened and he cared. As an educator he took pains to create an opportunity not just for me but, I discovered later, for many others, male and female, year after year.

I mourn his passing and celebrate his life in the Hollywood studio lights and the offices of Culver High. In the crucible of one small room I learned from his good deed the golden rule I have passed on to my students in Ann Arbor during a long academic career.

(Top image: Child actor Tommy Kelly as Tom Sawyer in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” 1938.)


  1. Judy Stonehill Labensohn - 1967

    I so enjoyed this Laurence, for two reasons. The first is that I also wanted to be a writer in high school and at our career’s day in 1963 the option did not appear. Unfortunately, I was more passive than you and did not ask for what did not appear on the list, so I became a social worker first. The second reason I loved this piece is because I was one of the youngish writers whose work you read and rejected nicely and eventually accepted. I’m trying to pass on that goodness to my own students in Israel. All best and thank you, Judy


  2. ROGER lowenstein - 1964

    laurence: we are the same generation — freshmen in 1960. except i was lucky enough to have the english department at u-m — g.b. harrison, donald hall, herb barrows, jim gindin, etc etc……i am now semi-retired from running the charter school in los angeles i founded, and i am absolutely loving the free time, busier than ever…… of luck! roger


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