The Greenwich Country Day School’s distinguished English teacher emeritus, Mr. Tom Brody, passed away recently in Hanover, New Hampshire. Sometimes, great trees fall in the forest, and there is no one to discern it. Not surprisingly, Mr. Brody’s seedling turned out to be a veritable Sequoia. Thus, we all heard it crash – even from afar. As one of his former colleagues who still toils at GCDS, I have received ripples of praise for him from a slew of his former students over the past few days. One of his English scholars wrote me earlier this morning, “He might be gone, but the spirit of Mr. Brody continues to lurk within. 20 years later, I still hear his voice each time I write.”
Tom Brody’s passion for literature inspired three generations of students at Country Day to become adroit writers and deft thinkers. A teacher who loves teaching will teach a student to love learning. Mr. Brody was one of those difference-makers who emphasized that the world of learning was limitless. He innately understood that any student is only as brilliant as we allow him or her to be. William Butler Yeats once wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” In every way, Tom was a fiery fellow – and, yes, he loved puns. His influence was such that he shaped the hearts and minds of virtually every student he taught.
As a renowned columnist and writer for Sports Illustrated in the 1960s, Tom Brody was a respected contemporary of such acclaimed writers as Frank Deford, William Nack, and Jack McCallum. Indeed, Tom’s published profiles of everyone from Johnny Unitas to Bill Russell to Willie Mays at SI are now considered literary classics.
Beginning in the fall of 1967, Mr. Brody instilled his “clarion call for lucidly written expression” within the hearts and minds of hundreds of his “minions” whom he coaxed and prodded in his celebrated English classes for the next three-decades-plus. Tom Brody cared – perhaps more than any instructor I’ve ever known. His legendary Splat-Paper assignments inspired a legion of young people to write with feeling, intensity, and sagacity. He emphasized a plethora of compositional techniques including the most elusive of them all, “show – don’t tell.”
Through the venue of such hallowed short stories as Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” and its memorable introductory sentence – “No one knew the color of the sky” – Tom’s would ultimately take his marking pen and cross out gobs of prose in order to uncover the simple truth that framed a student’s narrative. He believed that the act of writing was a sweat inducer, which…“ was more exhausting than pitching a complete game and more satisfying because printed words on a page were monuments to the process.” As Mr. Brody used to say, the first and foremost characteristic a writer must have is pluck.
In recognizing that teaching is the greatest act of optimism, Tom Brody strove to have his students learn a fountainhead of lessons about life through the characters he introduced to them in a myriad of short stories, poems, and novels. While he was a great pontificator in class, Mr. Brody’s listening skills were such that I used to kid him that he was a cleric in a former life. An innovator at heart, Tom taught Lord of the Flies through the lens of Freudian psychology; he cherished the flawed Holden Caulfield and prodded his students to walk in the shoes of all people, both real and imaginative. (I well remember one class when his charges got to the critical juncture of Lord of the Flies, and Tom was almost reduced to tears. “Oh, Piggy…..dear, sweet Piggy,” he sighed.)
I was incredibly blessed when the celebrated Mr. Brody explicitly adopted me as his protege and asked me to teach with him in ninth grade beginning in 1995. Under his nimble guidance, I learned how to use the exemplary texts he so loved to bring a profound sense of enlightenment to my charges. When he retired, Tom charitably left me with his notes to over 25 short stories and seven novels, a gift that continues to light up the sky for me two decades later.
As someone who spent hundreds of hours in his luminous presence, I was able to incorporate Tom’s pedagogical template for how to bring out the best in my own students. Like all great educators, Tom Brody’s heady sense of humor, his flair for the dramatic, and his preference to clothe anything through the prism of the anecdote – especially the absurdist variety – was legendary. His passion for everything from baseball to politics to literature was indisputable. (He once told me that the thing he most loved about baseball was… “the music of the game.”) The bottom line, of course, was that Mr. Thomas Cobb Brody gave a damn. No wonder Juliet Capulet was his favorite literary figure.
Ultimately, I will remain forever indebted to him for showing me the way as a teacher, writer, and nurturer. When I heard Tom had died, I immediately thought of Dylan Thomas’s immortal refrain, which Mr. Brody often quoted. “Do not go gentle into that good night; old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light.” As passion fueled him like a wood-stove, I am certain that in the end, Tom Brody raged on against the dying of the light.
As a master wordsmith, Mr. Brody frequently ended his trimester comments to deserving students with a favorite laudatory word, which fits pretty well right for him right here. Kudos.