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. Theyrecently made him an honoraryBulldog.
We were proud of him, we were gladfor 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 membersat easeso they could be friends even if they disagreed onissues.
Pushing diversity? I love doingthat! exclaims Vassar. I wanted to do that more! Ibelieve in that and that's what Ithink public education is supposed to do!
Busing integrated the schools, but in thelate '80s, black parents weren't satisfied with student academicperformance. Vassar at the time told reporters the district hadto doa better job supporting students and teachers within those integrated schools. We simply haven't put the resources together in the right spot, he told KING5 News. And wehaven't got it together politically with oureducation association.
Today, Vassar says, resources remain the issue. After 18 years at Lakeside,Vassar remains atireless 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 andstill works every day.