Best-selling author Tom Clancy dies at 66


BALTIMORE — Tom Clancy, the author whose novels “The Hunt for Red October” and “Patriot Games” subsequently inspired blockbuster movies and action-packed video games, died Tuesday after a brief illness at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

He was 66. His lawyer, Thomas Webb, confirmed his death.

“When he published ‘The Hunt for Red October’ he redefined and expanded the genre and as a consequence of that, a lot of people were able to publish such books who had previously been unable to do so,” said Stephen C. Hunter, an author and former Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for The Washington Post. “He valued technical precision and on-target writing that became the form of the modern thriller.”

Clancy was the author of numerous best-selling novels, most of which featured the character Jack Ryan.

“I’ve been lucky,” Clancy said in a 1992 interview with The Baltimore Sun, between sucks on an omnipresent Merit menthol.

Growing up in Baltimore’s middle-class Northwood neighborhood, he spent fall afternoons as a youth rooting for the Baltimore Colts, a team whose in-your-muddy-face style helped make football a national passion.

“I was a little nerdy but a completely normal kid. Mom and Dad loved each other. It was like ‘Leave it to Beaver,’” he said in the 1992 interview.

His education was all-Catholic, beginning with St. Matthew’s grade school. He went on to Loyola High School in Towson, Md., an all-boys school with an all-male faculty and a rigorous, Jesuit curriculum. Students took four years of Latin, wore jackets and ties and began each class with a prayer.

“He was kind of his own man. He was quiet and toward the shy side,” Father Thomas McDonnell, a Loyola faculty member who taught Clancy religion, Latin and history in his sophomore year, once recalled in an interview. He described Clancy as a straight-A student from the standout class of 1965, but unremarkable as a leader or athlete.

“I knew he was in class, but if you had told me he would be where he is today I would have said, ‘No way,’” McDonnell said.

One former classmate, Towson dentist John Aumiller, said, “He had a vocabulary and skill with the language of an older person. He didn’t speak with high school slang.”

While some of Clancy’s classmates went on to spend the late 1960s on campuses rife with anti-war activism, he moved a few miles south to Baltimore’s Loyola College, where the ruling Jesuits had little tolerance for demonstrations. Clancy took ROTC classes.

“Loyola was a working-class college. You had to be rich to be radical,” Clancy said. “I was more of a Peter, Paul and Mary kind of guy.”

He graduated in 1969 with an English degree and moved to Connecticut to work for an insurance company. Two years later he returned to Maryland, joining his in-law’s insurance agency in the Calvert County community of Owings.

Despite his fascination with the military, Clancy never served in uniform. His ROTC classes were the sort that prepared students for military careers, but a serious case of near-sightedness kept him out of the service. (It also was the reason for his trademark dark glasses; the tinting kept the thick lenses from making him “look like a chipmunk,” he once said).

But his insurance office had a number of military clients, which kept him around epaulets and brass buttons. He wrote an article in 1982 on the MX missile system for Proceedings, a publication of the Naval Institute in Annapolis.

His first publisher, Jim Barber, a retired Navy captain and executive director of the Naval Institute, once remembered Clancy as “a very bright guy who knows clearly what he thinks and doesn’t hesitate to let you know what he thinks.”

“He’s very direct. You don’t have any problem understanding where you stand with him,” he said.

Bored with the insurance business, Clancy began working on a novel in his spare time, basing it loosely on a real-life, 1975 mutiny aboard a Soviet frigate. The result, published in 1984, was “The Hunt Red October,” a tale of superpower conflict centered on a renegade Soviet nuclear submarine.

The rest, as they say, is history. The book took off like a heat-seeking, surface-to-air missile, selling 300,000 hardbacks and 2 million paperbacks in the first two years. The hardcover version spent 31 weeks on Publishers Weekly’s bestseller list; the paperback, 37 weeks.

The book got a significant boost when then-President Ronald Reagan declared it a “perfect yarn” and other officials hinted playfully that it may contain classified information. One version of that story has a publicist working feverishly to get the book to the presidential bedside table; but Clancy insisted it was simply a reviewer with a friend with connections who passed it along.

Numerous edge-of-your-seat books later, he was one of the best-read authors of all time.

Though he was a poor athlete as a youth, Clancy was a major financial player in Baltimore’s sporting renaissance in the 1990s, when the Orioles moved to Camden Yards and the NFL returned to Baltimore.

He was the biggest minority investor in the group that Peter Angelos assembled to buy the Orioles for $173 million in 1993. Before that he applied, but dropped out of the bidding, for an NFL expansion team for Baltimore.

The 1993 expansion effort was a flop, but Baltimore’s application left a strong impression on at least one NFL team owner: Art Modell moved his Browns to Baltimore in 1996 and renamed them the Ravens.

Clancy’s tough-guy countenance turned to mush when the subject was Kyle, a boy from Long Island who shared Clancy’s fascination with fighting men and their weaponry. In 1990, Kyle, then 6 and waging war with cancer, wrote a fan letter to Clancy.

Clancy responded first with a squadron of surplus airplane-posters. Then, as Kyle’s condition deteriorated, Clancy leaned on Pentagon pals to arrange visits for Kyle on warships and planes.

As Kyle neared death, Clancy served as tour guide for a visit to Disney World and went on to found the Kyle Foundation to help similarly ill children.