Beloved Lakewood Christian Schools music teacher Tom Kell dies at 71 – Press Telegram
He sang about a penguin who always wore a black and white tuxedo and never had to worry about what to wear when he got up in the morning.
He told fantastic stories, like that of a squirrel gazing contest.
He taught children to have fun, to enjoy life, and to listen to their parents and teachers. And above all, he taught them to sing.
During his 71 years on Earth, he was Tom Kell, a professional singer-songwriter. But for 19 of those years and for thousands of students at Christian Schools from Lakewood to Long Beach, he was also, quite simply, Mr. Kell, music teacher and funny storyteller.
Those same students are now grappling with the loss of their beloved teacher, who at the end of September, just three months after being diagnosed with colon cancer, according to his wife, Sara Kell. A Celebration of Her Life will be held at 10:30 a.m. on November 13 at Arbor Road Church, 5336 E. Arbor Road, Long Beach.
âHe brought so much joy and love to our students with songs and stories,â said principal Brenda Barton. “The school is devastated by its loss.”
Because he was too ill to give his usual back-to-school welcome to parents in early September, Barton asked Kell to record a message, which the school played to parents.
âI wish I could be with you tonight and sing my traditional song, but I’m too sick,â Kell said in the post. “I just want to thank you for the privilege of teaching your children.”
This emotional message, his wife said, meant so much to Kell – who lived for the children and loved to teach them.
âMister. Kell had a knack for making every child feel important, special and important to them,â said Heidi Hatch-Willis, a mother whose two daughters, Peyton in sixth grade and Camryn in fifth grade, who go to school. “It’s a profound loss.”
Tom Kell was born August 29, 1950 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His father, James D. Kell, was in the United States Army and was one of the last survivors of Bataan’s death march in the Philippines during World War II. Her mother was an accountant.
Kell’s family moved to the Tacoma, Washington area where he attended elementary and high school before joining the military himself. By this time, Kell had learned to play the guitar and discovered that he had a good voice and a knack for writing songs.
In 1972, he met Scott Smith, pianist and singer, in a cafe in Tacoma.
âWe were both doing folk singing back then,â Smith said over the phone from his home in Arizona. “Tom was a prolific songwriter and we sang together.”
They added more musicians and formed Skyboys, a well-known Pacific Northwest country-rock band from 1973 to 1981.
âTom’s love for music almost matched his love for baseball and the Dodgers,â Smith said.
During rehearsals with his students, Kell sometimes wore a numberless baseball jersey. 32 on the back is the number worn by Dodgers Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, who was one of Kell’s heroes. Kell also loved a photo he had of himself with the team’s current third baseman Justin Turner taken at Dodger Stadium.
Kell moved to Southern California to pursue his career as a writer and singer, Smith said. Kell wrote songs which were recorded by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Kenny Rogers and others.
He also married his first wife and they had a son, Casey, and a daughter, Caitlyn. After a divorce, he met Sara Ross at Los Altos Brethren Church in Long Beach, where they were both parishioners. They were married on February 27, 1998.
Thanks to a friend from Lakewood Christian Schools, Kell was invited to sing and play for the children as a guest – without pay.
âBut then the school music teacher and the school started talking to Tom about teaching,â said his wife, now named Sara Kell. “One thing led to another, he was hired as a music teacher in 2003.”
The teaching job also appealed to Kell because it meant he could spend more time with his own children instead of traveling across the country.
âHe had never taught before, but he fell in love with these kids and taught them everything he knew about music,â said Sara Kell. âHe made everyone feel that he or she was the only person in the room. He remembered the name of each child.
And he flourished as a teacher.
âHis story is an actual version of the movie ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus, âsaid Louis Willis, whose daughters attend school.
Kell wrote songs about penguins, apples, fish, anything and everything. He had such a passion for music, his wife said, that he couldn’t live without it.
âIt was such a big part of him,â she said. âHe wrote with his heart.
He even drew inspiration from the teachers’ room.
âA teacher once said to Tom, ‘I don’t share chocolate,’â Barton said. So Tom wrote a quick song, saying, ‘I’ll share the shirt on my back, but I won’t share chocolate. “”
One of Kell’s most popular songs was “The Penguin Life”.
âIf you jump in a boat and travel south, Antarctica is where you will be,â he wrote. “And if you see a bird in a tuxedo, you are probably looking at me.” When I wake up I know what to wear. I just hang out with my friends. I love the penguin life. This is the philosophy of the Penguin.
Then there is the air on the apples.
âIf an apple fell from an apple tree, just above your head, just be thankful that it came from an apple seed,â he wrote, ânot a watermelon seed instead. . “
Hatch-Willis said from the time his daughters were in kindergarten they would come home talking about Mr. Kell.
âThey taught me all of their favorite songs, so I knew them by heart and I could sing along with them,â she said. âHe was handing out stickers to Mr. Kell (a cartoon of himself that read ‘Mr. Kell the music teacher’). If they have one, it made their day. Camryn now plays the clarinet and she made sure to put a Mr. Kell sticker on her case to remember him.
Hatch-Willis also recalled the day Mr. Kell gave his daughter Peyton a solo to sing at the annual Christmas concert.
“She was really nervous,” Hatch-Willis, “but he spoke to her and gave her the encouragement and the confidence to do it, and she took him out of the park.”
The school asked students to write down their favorite memories of Mr. Kell to display during his celebration of life.
Here is a sample of some of them
- Nina: âMr. Kell was the nicest person I know. Whenever I was sad he would notice and sing my favorite Mr. Kell song. I joined the choir so I could see it more. He is in our memories forever. I love you, Mr. Kell.
- Hailey: âDear Mrs. Kell and her family, I loved the funny stories he told in class because they made me laugh. When I knew he was gone, I couldn’t believe it. It was as if I had no air to breathe. I know you might be sad right now, but remember God has it.
- Lucy: âOne of my favorite Mr. Kell stories was about his eye contact with a squirrel. He always knew an incredible story to make us laugh.
At Mr. Kell’s memorial service, Barton said, there will be plenty of carols, led by Kate Phelps, the school band principal who wrote Christmas musicals every year with Mr. Kell and gave a annual pop concert with him.
âAs I told the kids when Mr. Kell passed away,â Barton said, âwe will continue to sing his songs so that he is always with us.â