Seattle educator fights for diversity despite life-threatening disease



Posted on January 17, 2011 at 7:09 PM

Updated Monday, Jan 17 at 10:20 PM

SEATTLE -- As a Seattle School Board member, he was one of the biggest cheerleaders for busing to achieve integration and improved opportunities for students. Now diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, T.J. Vassar continues to work for diversity in education in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It's no surprise that T.J. Vassar has been pursuing diversity for students. The surprise is: where.  Lakeside.   A historically white private school for the well to do -- now 47% minority.

"We say here you can't have excellence without diversity," says Vassar in a conference room on campus. Now the school's Director of Diversity, Vassar was one of the first three African Americans recruited to graduate from Lakeside in 1968.

"Most people only knew a black person from what they saw on TV," recalls Vassar who played football and eventually was elected Senior class president. "So I think getting to know me, they saw someone who was a real human being, that wasn't a stereotype."

Vassar's friend and Washington Middle School classmate Gregory Johnson says they didn't begrudge Vassar not attending Garfield High School with them.  They recently made him an honorary Bulldog. 

"We were proud of him, we were glad for him," says Johnson. " We all lived in the same neighborhood. We all had expectations that our next generation would go to college and we all felt we would come back and serve the community." Johnson said Vassar always came back to Garfield to watch football games and attend proms (Lakeside was an all male school back then). "He lived a couple blocks from Garfield. It was like he never left."

As a Seattle School Board Member from 1981-89, Vassar supported the district's voluntary busing plan, which it defended all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Michael Hoge was the District's attorney.

"He believed that you can't have a decent education without teaching our kids to cross ethnic lines comfortably. So they're better prepared to work as adults and so they'll be better citizens in our democracy," says Hoge.  He says Vassar's optimism and hearty laugh put fellow board members at ease so they could be friends even if they disagreed on issues.

Pushing diversity? "I love doing that!" exclaims Vassar. "I wanted to do that more! I believe in that and that's what I think public education is supposed to do!"

Busing integrated the schools, but in the late '80s, black parents weren't satisfied with student academic performance.  Vassar at the time told reporters the district had to do a better job supporting students and teachers within those integrated schools.  "We simply haven't put the resources together in the right spot," he told KING 5 News. "And we haven't got it together politically with our education association." 

Today, Vassar says, resources remain the issue. After 18 years at Lakeside, Vassar remains a tireless promoter of opportunity through education. "Education and innovation are what make us stand out in the world.  So we really need to concentrate more on education. We have to have the public really care about public education. Fund it and support it."

Last March, Vassar was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But he says he's feeling great and still works every day.