An English professor remembers Tom Clancy, the college student
Sue Abromaitis, Ph.D., on the father of the techno-thriller and his creative beginnings
Every Loyola student knows the story. Longtime Professor of English Carol “Sue” Abromaitis, Ph.D., once failed Tom Clancy, ’69.
But it’s not true.
“There is no truth to it at all, none, none, none. It became part of the urban legend of Baltimore,” says Abromaitis. “I used to say to my majors, ‘Would you please tell everyone that I never failed Tom Clancy?’ I will never forget the student who said to me, ‘Why should we? It makes us look smart.’”
The real story is that Abromaitis recognized and admired Clancy’s writing talent early in his time at Loyola.
“He was a good student,” she says. “What he was interested in he was very interested in. He really liked science fiction and fantasy. I can remember his showing me a short story he wrote when he was in high school, and I thought it was really good. He always had the talent, and then he put it to work.”
When Clancy decided he wanted to do an independent study in 20th-century science fiction, he asked Abromaitis to direct it. The department chair consented, and she and Clancy planned a meeting.
“He walks in with this briefcase loaded with books that I had to read,” Abromaitis said. She read them all. “I always addressed them from the usual point of literary analysis. That got me hooked on it, and for a few years I taught a course in science fiction and fantasy.”
Abromaitis remembers Clancy’s passion for ROTC at Loyola, although he was unable to qualify due to his nearsightedness. “He really was a frustrated soldier, and his eyes kept him out,” she said. “He was always very much interested in technology even though he liked being an English major, and I guess he got to know some Navy guys really well when he moved to Southern Maryland.”
That interest grew into The Hunt for Red October. When Clancy was writing the book, he sent his former English professor the galleys to read. Abromaitis said to her husband, Mike, ’62, “You might want to read this.”
Once Mike started reading, he kept asking, “When’s Tom going to send us the next one?”
“I still think it’s the best one he ever did—not that the others weren’t good,” Abromaitis said. “It started the techno-thriller genre.”
Clancy would come to the Abromaitis home where he and Mike would play war board games, including one called Waterloo, a game from Avalon Hill. Clancy later bought the company.
When Clancy’s first child, Michelle, was born in 1973, he asked the Abromaitis couple to be the baby’s godparents. And over the years Abromaitis got to know Clancy’s parents, his father who was a postman and his mother who was a housewife who also worked at Montgomery Ward. Although he grew up in Northwood, his family later moved to Gaywood, the neighborhood just west of Rodgers Forge.
“He was always a good writer, a clear writer,” said Abromaitis, who enjoyed watching him grow as a writer. “He was one of the first who used chapters, short and episodic chapters that made it easier for people to hold onto, plus his syntax is very clear, his vocabulary right on, very apt. He knew what he was doing. And he tells a rip-roaring good story. He really has a good imagination. I think there’s a real respect for the reader, too.”