Tom Clancy, RIP

Tom Clancy was a great gentleman, generous and kind. He gave a lot of money away to medical research, and if you wanted to hear him get excited you talked about what doctors were doing to make the world better. They were his heroes. He loved America and worried about her. Our friendship over the years became an email and instant-message one. I’d be working at my desk and suddenly on my screen his nom de net would pop up and he’d be full of life, immediately present. What’s cooking, how’s the weather, what do you think of this senator, that governor, who’s coming up, who can help the country? He was relaxed about his work, didn’t take it so seriously, or rather himself so seriously. He’d sold tens of millions of books and was a household name. That didn’t impress him much. At the same time he was aware of his name’s power and frequently deployed it to help others.

He was a professional who hit his marks and did his job. He had the confident sense his imagination would carry him through. He did a lot of research, which often involved finding ignored geniuses who loved telling him about the latest in military technology and spycraft and politics. He admired men and women in the armed forces as much as he admired doctors. When he judged a general to be a good man he’d tell you why, and a lot of the time it wasn’t what he’d done on the battlefield but something else. Of a Marine officer, from memory: “This guy was held up outside a Wal-Mart, pushed his wife to safety, clocked the bad guy and sat on him while he waited for the cops.” He admired manliness in all its manifestations. He was especially kind to young writers. In 1989 he heard of a manuscript I’d written, got his hands on it, and tracked me down to offer to write a big, over-the-top blurb. We had never met. I was impressed and heartened by his praise—he knew what young writers need most is to be heartened—and a friendship began. I notice that I begin this by calling Tom a gentleman, and going over old emails I found that that was his highest form of praise. Of an admired surgeon: “He’s a great gentleman and a pretty good chest cutter.” Of another: “A solid troop, Bill is.” He thought character was the most important thing, that it trumped brains and talent in the making of a life.

Tom Clancy loved Camden Yards, the Yeoman Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he was proud to tell me a few years ago he’d bought research chairs in ophthalmology and pediatric oncology, the latter a great passion. Tom’s father had been a mailman there; now Tom was sending notes to Stephen Hawking telling him of the Neurology Department’s latest clinical trials. He found this part of his life delicious—that he had risen so far, just like an American—and common, too. To him, his story was the classic one of his country and the essence of its dream: Here you can start from anywhere and go on to anything. He was proudly sentimental and loved the unheralded—regular, uncelebrated people who yet make everything run, who keep the whole thing going. He had a gift for praise and dwelled on the excellence of others. He noticed it. When someone—a clerk, a president—was a jerk, he summed the person up with an earthy epithet and moved on. Life is too short, let’s talk about the good guys.

But the essence of him was this: Tom Clancy, patriot. Oh how he loved the America he inherited and came from, wanted so badly to preserve and did help preserve, by creating, among others, the brave and good Jack Ryan, a late-20th-century icon of the USA. I called him Big Tom. Probably a number of people who knew him did. He had a big heart. He changed many lives. He worked hard. I hope tonight the Beefeaters of the Yeoman Warders are hoisting a few in his memory. Something tells me they are, right now. Tom Clancy, rest in peace.