By Leslie Feldman
Chestnut Hill area author Tom Keels loves our community’s rich history, and he’s fond of the town because it gave him his start in writing, specifically non-fiction and historical writing. “In the late 1990s, I began writing book reviews for the Chestnut Hill Local and then started writing articles about Chestnut Hill history and architecture,” said Keels in an interview last month.
“This evolved into my first book, the ‘Images of America: Chestnut Hill’ volume for Arcadia Publishing. The book, which I co-authored with Chestnut Hill Historical Society curator Elizabeth Jarvis, was published in 2002. It’s still in print and has probably earned thousands of dollars for the Society. Now, 15 years later, I’ve just published my seventh book, ‘Sesqui! Greed, Graft and the Forgotten World’s Fair of 1926’ (Temple Press).”
Keels, 62, began writing plays in grade school and even tried writing scripts for “Dark Shadows,” his favorite TV show at the time. After graduating from Princeton University, he moved to New York, where he worked in book publishing, then in marketing and market research. “I didn’t become interested in writing for writing’s sake until I moved to Philadelphia in 1988,” he explained.
What brought Keels to Philadelphia was a job with Fidelity Bank and a desire to escape a cramped studio apartment in Brooklyn Heights for a house, yard, car and all the other grownup things that his friends in Philadelphia seemed to have.
His first apartment was in Anglecot, the old Victorian manor on Prospect Avenue that had been turned into co-op apartments by Richard Snowden. “My apartment was the only one that hadn’t sold. It was cobbled together from the tail-end of all the other apartments and consisted of 10 rooms on four floors. It was a ridiculous amount of space but the perfect antidote to my Brooklyn Heights studio.”
The only problem Keels experienced with the apartment was that he kept hearing footsteps coming up the stairs, night after night, and stopping outside his bedroom door. “It was really freaking me out,” said Keels. “Then I discovered that other friends sensed a presence as well. After about a year, I bought a house in Mt. Airy and moved out.
“Sometime later, Richard Snowden told me that the daughter of the family that originally owned the house had died in childbirth — in the room that had been my bedroom … I have spoken to other current and former residents of Anglecot who had experienced paranormal phenomena in their homes, so something unseen does walk the halls.”
In 1998, Keels’ husband, Larry Arrigale, also an author and actor, and he bought their first house together in Wyndmoor. In 2010, they moved to their current home in Upper Dublin, just outside of Ambler, where they live with two cats — a large yellow tabby named Mel and a small gray ball of fluff named Lexi. Keels currently works in the reporting department at Reimbursement Technologies in Conshohocken. “I can’t make writing my permanent job until the mortgage is paid off.”
The first book Keels wrote after moving to Philadelphia was a vampire novel called “Old Blood,” set in Chestnut Hill. It was about a very old-line, WASPy family, owners of a major Philadelphia bank who had been “turned” by a follower of Johannes Kelpius back in the 1690s and were now quite adept at passing as human. “There were episodes set during the Yellow Fever Epidemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918 — eras that were pretty grim if you were mortal but just fine and dandy if you were the Undead,” explained Keels. “I spent years trying to get an agent or a publisher with no luck at all. It was a frustrating experience, but my research taught me a lot about Philadelphia history, which I used writing non-fiction.”
Through his books, Keels hopes readers will learn something about the hidden aspects of Philadelphia history, the areas that get glossed over while almost everyone focuses on Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross and 1776. “I love exploring the darker corners of the city — its neglected burial grounds, its vanished architecture, its forgotten scandals. ‘Sesqui!’ focuses on an entire world’s fair that was buried over because it was such a fantastic flop, thanks to greed and corruption and the city’s pay-to-play culture. There’s so much rich material that is just waiting to be uncovered. I love being a historical archaeologist.”
Now that “Sesqui!” has seen the light of day, Keels has started work on a detective novel set in Philadelphia during the early days of World War II that features a gay detective. Keels is also a long-time tour guide at Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Keels fell in love with Chestnut Hill when interviewing for the Fidelity Bank job. “I strolled down a path leading off of Rex Avenue and suddenly was on Forbidden Drive. I couldn’t believe that such a beautiful park was just a few steps from a bustling neighborhood. The physical beauty of this region still amazes me.”
When not at his desk writing, Keels enjoys community theater. He has acted in a few plays recently at the Allens Lane Art Center Theater. He is also an avid walker and hiker and a rabid bibliophile. “I used to volunteer in the book section at the St. Paul’s Rummage Sale but had to stop because I kept bringing home half of what didn’t sell!”
For more information about “Sesqui!” or any of Keels’ other books, visit www.thomaskeels.com