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Memories of Tom Clancy

I had not taken my first sip of coffee Wednesday morning when the phone call came telling me of the death of my friend, mentor, and co-author Tom Clancy. The news hit me hard, as did the day that followed, as literally hundreds of friends, family, fans, reporters and peers tweeted, Facebooked, emailed, interviewed and called to express their shock and condolences at the loss of this fine man. I had the pleasure of knowing Tom since the mid-1980s, and like many others he helped along the way, I owe my current profession to his having pioneered the techno-thriller. All the spinoffs that were part of the world I came to know as a writer, including this website, were the direct result of the public interest his writing stirred within the American people, and fans worldwide. So it only makes sense that as I remember my friend Tom, I share some of the things that I came to know about him in the almost 30 years we knew each other.

Generous with advice and support toward his peers, Tom’s charity and philanthropy was always about the personal.

Perhaps the first thing that people need to know about Tom was that he was a good man, in just about every sense of the word. Generous with advice and support toward his peers, Tom’s charity and philanthropy was always about the personal. When his first wife developed cancer some years ago, and the fine folks at Johns Hopkins were able to drive it into remission, it was not enough for Tom that he just say “thank you,” or make a donation. Instead, he helped raise the money to build an entire cancer ward at Johns Hopkins, much of that coming from his own pocket. And when he received a letter from the Make-a-Wish Foundation, in which a young leukemia patient named Kyle wished that Tom Clancy would take him to Disney World, he was there for that boy for the rest of his all too short life. He later named a charitable foundation after Kyle, his way of keeping the memory of his young friend alive. This was what Tom Clancy was, and his fierce friendship was a side of him that was rarely seen by the public.

Tom Clancy

Authors Tom Clancy and John Gresham, along with artist Laura Newsome, tour Fort Hood, Texas. Behind them sit the M1A2 Abrams tanks that they rode through the Texas Hills. Photo from the personal collection of Laura Newsome

So what was it like to work with Tom Clancy? I have reflected on that in the time since we finished up our work together, and I keep coming back to a singular reality: that for about a decade, I had the world’s best “guy” job as his researcher and co-author. That decade was filled with wondrous days spent in his office, sharing ideas and stories, poring over maps and charts, and sometimes just sitting out on the deck or shooting off a magazine of 9mm rounds in his personal shooting range downstairs. The best times, however, came from those occasions where we could get out on the road and do some field research in the rough. These included visits to contractors like Sikorsky in Connecticut, where we got to fly simulated missions that later became scenes in his novel Debt of Honor. Other times, we would visit senior officers at the Pentagon and other headquarters, gaining insights into strategies and visions for the future. The best times were out in the field, with the troops, getting a little dirty and having some good fun.

I recall a research trip out west in 1993, which included several days at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., followed by a trip down to Fort Hood, Texas as the guests of Lt. Gen. Paul E. “Butch” Funk, USA. Funk had commanded an armored division during Desert Storm, and because it was Tom Clancy asking, the doors of the U.S. Army slammed wide open for us. Tom, myself, and our artist Laura Newsome spent an incredible day seeing and doing things that most civilians could only imagine. We became the first non-civil service/contractor civilians to drive the new M1A2 Abrams main battle tank, along with shooting all of the tank’s weapons. Each of us was given our own tank and crew, and we spent a joyous few hours rat racing at over 50 mph, climbing the Texas Hills, and learning how to load and shoot the big 120 mm main guns. And before you accuse us of having had a taxpayer-funded joyride, it needs to be said that virtually everything we did that day wound up in the pages of my second book with Tom, Armored Cav. As if that wasn’t enough, Funk then took us on a twilight helicopter tour of Fort Hood and its ranges, with Tom sitting in the front gunners seat of an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, along with Laura and I in an escorting UH-60 Black Hawk. These were the kinds of days and experiences that my knowing Tom Clancy gave me, and I will never forget what a gift it was to know and work with him.

I will never forget what a gift it was to know and work with him.

Over the years, many of Tom’s detractors criticized his work for what they felt was an overreliance on technical details and explanations of the hardware depicted in his books. The truth, however, was very different. Early in our collaboration, which resulted in the seven books of our “Guided Tour” series, Tom made it clear to me that while getting the technical details right was important, what was more important was to introduce our readers to the people who operated and maintained these technical marvels. What I got to know over time, was that he was nudging me toward one of the great realities of storytelling: it’s about people and what they have done, not the stuff they created and used.

By the time we finished the last book in the series, Special Forces, we had taken that belief to what became a great truth over the wars of the past 12 years – that people are more important than things, and good people in the military are not recruited and trained and qualified overnight. That is the hard and tedious work of folks like those who train Special Forces soldiers (Green Berets) at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center, and we made their efforts a cornerstone of what we presented in the books of the series.

Tom Clancy

Author Tom Clancy signs books for fans at Burns Library on the campus of Boston College, Mass., Nov. 20, 1989. Clancy was well-known for being generous with his time and signing until everyone who wanted one got one. Gary Wayne Gilbert photo

This is not to say that there were not hazards and risks in working with Tom. I had my Pentagon press pass taken from me in the late 1990s, when Tom made some disparaging comments about President Bill Clinton at the time of his impeachment. Tom later told me that such treatment by those in power was the price of speaking truth to that power, and I have come to see that he was right.

There were also the days of personal doubt with Tom, such as after 9/11, when he asked me if I thought that the al Qaeda hijackers might have gotten the idea to crash jumbo jets as flying bombs from his novel Debt of Honor. What followed was a multi-hour discussion, where I pointed out to him that the idea of using aircraft as improvised weapons of mass destruction was hardly new, something that I hope to this day provided him some solace on this matter.

Such things were a small price to pay for all that I learned and achieved as his friend, researcher and co-author. But for every problem and challenge that I had working with Tom, there always was the satisfaction of knowing that I had a job that virtually everybody else in the writing business would’ve gladly taken as their own.

Tom Clancy loved the men and women who served in the military, intelligence community, law enforcement, and first response units.

Of those satisfactions, I think the ones that stick with me most were the visits to training ranges, bases, ships, and factories, where Tom got to interact with the people who most loved his books. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel would stand in line for hours to get a few seconds to talk to him, and get a prized book signed. And he would always stay until the last ones in line got their chance, no matter how long it took.

Tom Clancy loved the men and women who served in the military, intelligence community, law enforcement, and first response units. And if he has an epitaph, it may be best summed up in something he wrote just after the end of the Cold War, in the dedication to The Sum of All Fears: “To all the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces, because the noblest of ideas have always been protected by warriors.”


John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...

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