Even with a remarkable legacy of accomplishments as an educator, researcher and leader, there was one more goal that Henry Thomas “Tom” James, the sixth dean of the Stanford School of Education wanted to achieve: becoming a centenarian.
Surrounded by family and friends, James finally celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this year.
James’ time at Stanford — as both a professor and dean—was preceded by a storied career as an educator in the Midwest.
Born on May 19, 1915, James grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and attended a one-room schoolhouse. Described as “in charge of his life; always master and commander,” by his daughter Jennifer Regan, James’ foray into leadership roles began when he captained a Navy ship during World War II. Following his time in the Navy, James took a position as an English teacher, and then later served as a principal and superintendent in Wisconsin cities. James then continued on to work at the Wisconsin State Board of Education—it was here where a mentor encouraged him to get a PhD.
James received his PhD at the University of Chicago. The only way Stanford convinced him to move to California, he said, was by “promising free college tuition to all six of my children.”
James came to Stanford in 1958 as a professor with expertise in educational finance. He then led the School of Education (now the Graduate School of Education) through a particularly tumultuous time in the nation beginning in his first year as dean in June 1966. James was at the helm of the school in the aftermath of the Kent State Massacre in Ohio, where unarmed college students were shot. “It was tough to be an administrator,” James' daughter recalled.
James concluded his term as dean at Stanford in August 1970 to return to Chicago to serve as the first president of the Spencer Foundation—an organization dedicated to providing grants to promote research initiatives aimed at improving education and teaching. He led the foundation until his retirement in 1985.
James recalls “very pleasant memories” of his time in Palo Alto, and his legacy is profound. As dean, James lay the groundwork for the strong interdisciplinary research that have come to characterize the school today.
“He transformed the school very quickly. He created new positions in economics, organizational studies, philosophy and political science," said Professor Martin Carnoy, who was hired by James in 1969. "James led Stanford to become one of the first education schools in the country to hire faculty in the social sciences; to do that was really innovative.”
Carnoy has witnessed the positive effects of James’ initiatives over the years. “I knew him as a transformative force; it was quite amazing—he recognized that education was moving in a new direction.”
Carnoy said that above all, James was a person who believed in excellence. "I knew him as a leader,” he said.
“His talent was seeing talent,” reflected Regan. Over the span of his career, James mentored many PhD students who went on to become leaders all over the country. His legacy speaks to the tremendous loyalty and respect that he inspired.
“Four years ago, a group of six or seven, who called themselves the ‘James boys,’ surprised him and had a wonderful dinner,” said Regan.
James and his wife, Vienna—who passed away in 2007—also influenced their six children.
“They raised us saying, ‘You can be anything you want,’” explained Regan. All six of James’ children went on to earn graduate degrees, and many of them are educators themselves—including his son Thomas James, who is currently the provost at Columbia Teacher’s College, and Regan, who was a teacher and now runs her own tutoring business. In addition to valuing education, James’ children also learned to love music; Vienna was an accomplished pianist who encouraged all her children to play the piano.
Today, James has 15 grandchildren and is the great-grandfather to 21 and counting. His family continues to have strong ties to Stanford; five of his six children went to Stanford for undergraduate studies (his oldest son went to Harvard). Students walking around the Stanford campus today can still get a glimpse of remnants of the James’ family home on campus: a sole persimmon tree that stands along the path behind the Stanford bookstore.
Following retirement, James eventually returned to his Midwest roots, and has since settled in Minnesota near two of his daughters. “He continues to stay active, and enjoys interacting with others—he liked to challenge himself to do crossword puzzles every day and he still strives to learn everyone’s names at the assisted living facility where he currently resides” said Regan. When asked about James’ key to longevity, Regan explained: “He stays in pretty good shape, is careful about what he eats and he exercises. It was his goal; he wanted to achieve 100.”
Grace Chen, MA '13, is an academic services specialist at Stanford Graduate School of Education.
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