Class Clowns

“Wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Love in the Time of Cholera

In the spring of 1990, there were a privileged group of high school Seniors studying in the southwest back corner room of Bullfinch Hall on the campus of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts

We were taking a high level English class under the tutelage of Lou Bernieri, then head of the English Department. For some reason, I recall that we had to apply to take the class. I have been told that the class was called “The Myth of America”. I don’t remember what it was called, but I know we read great works, discussed them with great vigor, and wrote great responses to the writing

The material was all over the map, but there was a strong emphasis on magical realism and the beautiful word

Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, Don DeLillo’s White Noise; Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera; Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking: or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, which was my favorite since Ms. Smart-Grosvenor was from the Lowcountry. Yankees didn’t get it. A friend of mine and I did. Not sure why we read Garcia Marquez in that class, but we did

Speaking of the work, “A Small Good Thing” by Mr. Carver still makes me cry. “They waited all day, but still the boy did not wake up.” If you’ve never read it, I highly encourage it. Bring some tissues

In that rarefied environment, Hamlin O’Kelley, skinny white boy from the Lowcountry, and Todd Isaac, skinny black boy from the Bronx, sat side by side and cracked each other up and drove Mr. Bernieri crazy. We drove our classmates crazy, too. Wanda Mann still recalls our antics. She rolled her eyes in time with the rest of the girls in our class

“Ok, you, two. That’s enough,” Lou would say to us

“Oh, look, the odd couple are at it again”

“Isaac! O’Kelley! I swear I’m sending you two to [Mr.] Carter [the Dean of Students]!” He never did

Todd and I just found so much of the material to be fodder for jokes, which material could be a bit heavy

“Cholera? More like diarrhea! Of the mouth”

“So, the baker keeps calling and calling and calling. Why the hell doesn’t the dad just pay the damn $16.00?”

“The dude in the Hitler Studies department has a kid named Heinrich?”

“Airborne Toxic Event….like after Chicken Kiev from Commons?”

“Reading this makes me HONGRY, Lou!”

Basically, Statler and Waldorf type cracks all class

Todd and I looked forward to Lou’s class and would high five each other around campus whenever we saw each other

Todd and I did not have the same friend group otherwise. We didn’t eat in the same dining hall. We didn’t live in the same dorm. We didn’t hang out on weekends. We didn’t try to flaunt the rules of the Academy together

Todd’s family, like so many black families in New York City, was originally from the South. He told me stories of going to see relatives in North Carolina. When he found out I was going to the University of North Carolina, he said that he would come visit on a trip to see his family in Salisbury

Todd was going to Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He had been recruited to play basketball. I said may be I’d see him if I ever came back to Massachusetts.

“You’re never coming to Chapel Hill!”

“You’re never coming to Worcester!”

“Dude, no one wants to go to Worcester. Not even the people from Worcester”

And, then, Todd would laugh and crack another joke and slap me on the arm

“Hammy, you are terrible”

“Todd Antoine, you are terrible”. I liked to kid him using his middle name.

“Dude, that’s what my mama calls me when I’m in trouble”


We said “Dude” all the time. What were we? Surfers?

After graduating from high school, we went to our separate colleges. After college, I went on to live in Kenya for a year and then on to Law School. After college, Todd went on to working in finance in his native city

He wrote to me a couple of times when I was in Kenya. I wrote him a couple of times when he was in New York. I have the letters he wrote me in Kenya

Lots of jokes about whitey in his homeland. Asking if I felt out of place. Wondering if I had killed a lion on my safari

I can’t remember what I wrote him, but I knew he was off to a storied career already working those crazy NYC finance hours. First in; last out

Then, like a lot of friends, we lost touch. Not because of any falling out but because of entropy

The last I heard about Todd was that he had already become a partner at the place he worked

In big time finance

At Cantor Fitzgerald

One World Trade

Lest we forget

Todd Isaac died at 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001

Twenty years ago today

When the news readers repeated the name Cantor Fitzgerald in the aftermath of that terrible day, I knew Todd was dead. We all did

I knew he was probably one of the first ones in to work and one of the last ones out. Always. First in; last out

I knew he probably cracked everyone up as he rode the express elevators to those fated floors. I knew he was cracking up his partners, his staff. I knew he was deadly serious about that which needed to be serious but with a strong sense of humor at the ready to take the piss out of anyone who needed it taking

In those pre-texting days, emails went around among our classmates confirming what we all knew

Todd was somewhere between the 101st and 105th floors of One World Trade that morning that began with the most blue of blue skies over Manhattan. The most beautiful of mornings

On each anniversary of September 11, I laugh and cry thinking about our whispering together, our disrupting, our discussing great literature under Lou Bernieri’s bemused gaze, much to the annoyance of our classmates

You know who you are

Lou acted mad, but Todd and I were the class clowns and class favorites. Lou has since confirmed our obstreperous presences made him smile. He loved that two so different fools found each other and bonded over the written word

In the years after 9/11, our schoolmates have hosted the Todd A. Isaac Memorial Basketball Tournament and an after party in Todd’s memory in New York City. Our high school’s alumni come to play and to laugh and to mourn and to remember. Proceeds established a scholarship to our alma mater in his name. Our class contributed early, often, generously. In two years, we had raised enough funds for a full schlarship in his name. Go Blue!

I need to go to the tournament sometime

Todd would laugh at my showing up and laugh even harder if I tried to play in the tournament

There is a scholarship to Holy Cross in his name, too.

In another twist, our classmate Jake Barton helped design the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Jake noted that Todd was in his thoughts literally every day as he worked on that sacred space



Jake confirmed that Todd would have been laughing his head off knowing that he, Jake, was on the job.

True statement

If you ever go to Ground Zero, please look for Panel N56 on the National September 11 Memorial and find Todd’s name

Kiss it for me

From the Andover Magazine. Enduring indeed

4 thoughts on “Class Clowns

  1. Beautifully written. So sad. So. So. Sad. It’s still hard to watch. Like JFK..I always hope as I watch , for a different ending. Magical thinking. ❤️

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Hamlin, Wow- what a wonderful tribute.  I just heard his name called on the 9-11 Memorial I am watching this morning. I am sure he is missed by many. Reading this made me realize that we live in such a small world and we are all tied together in so many ways.  One of my favorite books back when I was just developing my passion for reading was Love in The Time of Cholera. It was recommended by a favorite bartender at Dixie Seafood when I was at USC early eighties. I’ll have to check out some of the others you mention.  Then there is how we came to meet through Nan and went on to meet Jerome. John, my significant other was born and raised in Worcester and graduated from Worcester Polytech. After I read your story I handed my phone for him to read.  Within 5 minutes, Todd’s name was read on CBS.  Glad we got to know him through you.Thanks for sharing this wonderful story!!! Jennifer 🤗

    Sent from the all new AOL app for iOS

    Liked by 1 person

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