Visionary Educator and Advocate for “Great and Giving Lives”
Fifteen years ago, when Thomas Kelly, Ph.D., became Horace Mann School’s Head of School, the independent school’s reputation was already established. Founded in 1887, the N-12 northern Bronx preparatory school has educated generations of the tristate area’s best and brightest, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert Caro, acclaimed musical composer Elliott Carter, professional tennis player Renée Richards, and celebrated poet William Carlos Williams. Kelly was taken by the school’s vision to educate students to lead “great and giving lives.” To Kelly, though, there was work to be done in realizing that goal. The school’s beautiful campus seemed a world apart from the surrounding Bronx neighborhood, and Kelly believed that Horace Mann School’s students could learn from – and give to – their neighbors. Kelly set that as a priority for his early tenure. Signaling a new era of community and inclusion at Horace Mann School (HM), Kelly changed the school’s official mailing address from “Riverdale” to “The Bronx.”Inclusion is a theme running throughout Kelly’s long, accomplished career as an educator, from classroom teacher to principal to district superintendent: expanding access and equity for all students and families, regardless of background or need, income or ability.“In a nation like ours, in a world like ours, I’m continually fascinated by our collective inability to put kids first. We just can’t seem to get it right. Part of it is poverty. And we’re not going to fix poverty until we fix housing. But it is fixable.” Kelly knows plenty about how poverty, housing, and success are connected. During his senior year at Fairfield University, as part of the research for his senior thesis, Kelly lived among the homeless on the streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
He wasn’t (in Kelly’s words) “undercover or disguising his life back in Scarsdale.” His life revolved around soup kitchen lines, sleeping on concrete in the cold and rain, and “dumpster diving” for food – which even led to a serious injury, after a dumpster tipped over on his foot.
Living shoulder-to-shoulder among individuals who, for a wide and complex variety of reasons, found their way to the street made Kelly see that “homelessness is a non-discriminating issue.” A vivid memory from his time on the streets was the 1987 collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza, a Bridgeport building under construction, which killed 28 workers. “It was the homeless who rushed in first to aid the injured, before the first responders could get there. They didn’t hesitate for a second,” Kelly recalled. “This confirmed my belief that all people are born with good intentions, kindness, and a warm heart.” For decades now, Kelly has approached education with this ambitious mix of optimism and determination, helping to change the lives of thousands of kids and their families along the way – and earning him induction into the Irish America Hall of Fame.
“With my dad having recently passed on, and my mom getting older, I can’t think of any better way to recognize their good work,” said Kelly of the honor. Returning to his parents later in the interview, and how they would feel about his Hall of Fame induction, Kelly paused and said: “I’m going to tear up a bit here. I just wish my dad were alive to see this.” Kelly was born in Washington, D.C., where his father worked as a civilian attorney for the Air Force. The middle child of five (three boys and two girls), Kelly and his family eventually moved to Westchester County, north of New York City, where his Irish background was central to his upbringing. “It was omnipresent in terms of the values and our commitment to others.” Kelly traces his roots back to Tyrone and Cork. “We grew up knowing that our connections to Ireland were important, enough so that if you wanted an Irish passport, you could have one. My mom had an Irish passport. That was important to my parents.” Not surprisingly, so was education. “You didn’t have to be perfect,” said Kelly, “but you had to present yourself in the best way at school every day.” He added: “There was a lot of freedom to explore, a lot of freedom to make mistakes.” Spending time with Kelly makes you realize that for him, this freedom was about bringing a new kind of enthusiasm and creativity to learning. By high school, Kelly had also learned valuable lessons at home about service, reeling off a list of civic groups and other organizations for which his parents served as volunteers. “My parents worked awfully hard to not raise us privileged – even within privilege. The message was clear: ‘You’re going to do things on behalf of others.’”
Which might explain why, at the tender age of 17, Kelly assumed the first of many challenging supervisory roles, as coordinator of a Scarsdale day camp which served over 1,000 children. “I don’t hesitate to jump into the deep end of the pool,” Kelly noted. “I like it there.” Equally satisfying were the connections he was able to forge on an individual level. Kelly has long been an advocate for building connections and coalitions with other like-minded individuals and organizations, including Scarsdale Family Counseling Services and the United Way of Westchester. One of his first roles as a professional educator was as the principal of the Margaret Chapman School; he continued to serve that program as a board member for decades. During his time at HM, Kelly has served as a board member for Early Steps, Riverdale Senior Services, the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy, and De La Salle Academy. His second year at HM, Kelly appointed then director of guidance Jeremy Leeds (’72) as founding director of the school’s Center for Community Values and Action (CCVA).
The center, reflecting Kelly’s dedication to service and education through action, organizes a wide range of initiatives to bring education outside of the classroom. High school students at HM, for example, all participate in multiple service learning projects before they graduate. Kelly was instrumental in shifting HM’s focus from community service to service learning, with the expectation that students will take the time to reflect upon their experiences. Kelly and Leeds have stewarded HM’s service programs with other local groups including the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, Bronx Center for Science & Math, Mosholu Montefiore Community Center, Riverdale Children’s Theatre, the Fuller Center, and HM’s own Summer on the Hill program. In 2015 Kelly met Dave Aldrich, the founder of Grab The Torch (GTT), and was impressed with Aldrich’s determination to empower high school girls by teaching them about leadership, ethics, and philanthropy. Kelly and Leeds co-teach an Ethics in School and Society course for high school students, and Kelly decided to include GTT as part of HM’s expanded community services. In 2018, he offered GTT a campus office, further cementing the relationship. “The world needs to know about Tom Kelly,” Aldrich said of Kelly’s induction into the Irish America Hall of Fame. “There isn’t a more deserving human on earth.”
“I was fortunate enough, recently, to be in San Francisco and
Los Angeles with young (HM) alumni. And they were all
doing these amazing things in college. But the first thing they talked to me about was their service to others. This is what
‘great and giving lives’ is all about.”
Kelly shared, “I was fortunate enough, recently, to be in San Francisco and Los Angeles with young (HM) alumni. And they were all doing these amazing things in college. But the first thing they talked to me about was their service to others. That is what ‘great and giving lives’ is all about.”
This message has apparently gotten through to many HM graduates – including Kelly’s own daughter, Emma. A 2018 graduate now studying at Brown University, Emma recently joined a volunteer program in which she offers her time at grade schools in some of Providence, Rhode Island’s toughest neighborhoods. Beyond the focus on service, Kelly believes that today’s students need to be educated to see the world through a global lens. Kelly adds that seeing issues and concerns as part of a much bigger picture might help alter some of the behavior that has come to dominate public affairs. “Adults are behaving in ways that would get our kindergarteners suspended from a class trip. We need to prioritize respectful discourse while encouraging open debate.” This is just one challenge Kelly feels HM must continue to prepare its students for.
Another challenge Kelly has embraced throughout his life is the effort to bring people together with a common goal, a common vision, and a common focus. At HM, Kelly has worked tirelessly to make the school more inclusive and to make sure that others are aware of students’ and families’ diversity. “Difference is the only thing we all share at the end of the day,” says Kelly, before pausing and adding: “I look at how my own ancestors were welcomed. They were given a place to live; they were given an opportunity. I worry sometimes that we forget that the American Dream is still there every day. Why can’t we stop and celebrate that?”
Kelly has made a long, impressive career of doing just that, while epitomizing what it means to lead a “great and giving life.”