Cynthia Kellem, 84; Hull teacher gave students gift of theater

Mrs. Kellem was known for seeing the potential in people, former pupils said.
Mrs. Kellem was known for seeing the potential in people, former pupils said.

During the quarter century Cynthia Kellem taught English and headed the drama department at Hull High School, she was known for holding students to high expectations.

“The cast and crew of her shows were living evidence of the way she united the school,” said Dan Scully, a former student. “They were a mixture of theater kids, jock kids, band kids, brainiacs, and tough guys.”

Scully, who lives in Hull and is a former publisher of Boston magazine, was stage manager for Mrs. Kellem’s production of “The Music Man” and worked with the crew for “Oklahoma!”

“She taught us Broadway standards and then she insisted that we live up to them. She very simply and respectfully made it clear that more was expected of you, and she would try to help you get there,” he said, adding that the resulting performances were “off the charts for high school kids.”


Mrs. Kellem, who also was involved in many civic organizations, died of complications from cancer on July 9, two days after moving to the Pat Roche Hospice Home of Hingham. She was 84 and lived in Hull.

“She was a very rigorous teacher,” said Maria Judge of Medford, a reporter and essayist who added that what she learned in Mrs. Kellem’s AP English class “made me a good writer.”

“We didn’t get away with any nonsense,” Judge said, recalling Mrs. Kellem’s gift for “tapping into students’ energy and creativity. She really pushed us hard, but she also made learning interesting.”

After Judge performed in the chorus for three musicals, Mrs. Kellem cast her as a nightclub singer in “Guys and Dolls.”

“It was a leap of faith since I was a bookish, knee-socked, plaid-skirted, somewhat thin-voiced and awkward teenager who in no way resembled the classic showgirl,” Judge said. “But she fit me into the role and fit the role around me.”


Mrs. Kellem, she said, “brought me to her hairdresser, who loaned me a blonde wig,” and then she added “fake eyelashes and lots of makeup.”

Judge said Mrs. Kellem showed the same flexibility with all actors. “She got the most unlikely people to perform in her shows,” Judge said. “For ‘Mame,’ she convinced a couple of football players to appear onstage in pantyhose.”

Phyllis Farnham of Peterborough, N.H., a retired Hull history teacher, said Mrs. Kellem was “just spectacular, a fast and eager learner, and always very interested in every kid.”

Farnham added that “somehow she’d always get the athletes dancing in chorus. She was admired by everyone, including the kids.”

Joan Reede, dean of diversity and community partnership at Harvard Medical School, said she initially was reluctant to appear in the high school production of “Hair.”

“I was convinced I had no talent, but she got me through it,” said Reede, adding that “Hair” was her first and last stage onstage experience. “She saw something in me. She saw something in all students that they didn’t see in themselves.”

Reede was one of only a few black students in Hull High School, but “there was not a moment when she treated me as if I were an exception. She understood I faced challenges, but she wasn’t like, ‘You poor thing.’ She treated me the way she treated everyone, with an expectation of excellence.”

An only child, Cynthia Swartz was born in Boston. Her father, Morris, ran a textiles business. Her mother, the former Sadie Katz, once played piano in a silent movie theater in her hometown of Manchester, N.H.


Mrs. Kellem graduated from Roxbury Memorial High School and enrolled at the University of Vermont, where family said she starred in “Romeo and Juliet” and other plays. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English, she began teaching in Medfield. In 1954, she married Larry Kellem, whom she had met at age 12 at a dance in Boston and had dated throughout high school and college.

They lived in Brighton while he attended law school and were in France for several years while he served in the military. Upon their return, they settled temporarily in the Hull summer house that Larry’s family owned but quickly became attached to the seaside community and decided to stay.

Their son David, of Westwood, said that his parents “really loved their community life” and hosted large parties, often with themes and always with music played on the family’s baby grand piano.

Mrs. Kellem joined the Hull High School staff after her third child was born.

“My mom taught everybody in town and my dad represented everybody,” David said. “They were both really in touch with the youth in town.”

Even though Mrs. Kellem was a well-known teacher at the high school he attended, she always encouraged him and her other children to bring their friends over. Their friends often spent much of their time in her company.


“She was like having a wise and compassionate friend around,” David said. “If you had a problem, there was never any judgment. She would just listen and help you figure out for yourself what you’d done and what you maybe could have done better.”

After Mrs. Kellem retired in the mid-1980s, she became more involved in civic organizations, including the library where she served on the board and Temple Beth Shalom in Hull.

She loved to read and cook, and was known especially for celebrations she hosted during Jewish holidays. “She’d think nothing of having 25 or 30 people over,” her friend Farnham said.

A service has been held for Mrs. Kellem, who in addition to her husband and son leaves another son, Steven of Hingham; a daughter, Amy Slotnick of Brookline; and six grandchildren.

Scully said Mrs. Kellem taught him to love reading, and that time he spent in her children’s literature class, which included classics such as Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” was “the fastest and best hour of the school day.”

From simple stories, Mrs. Kellem crafted lessons “that she imparted to us with an infectious enthusiasm and joy,” Scully said. “In her class, as in her home, she made you feel like you were more than you ever thought possible. Not just that you could be more, but that you already were.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@verizon.net.