Henry Thomas 'Tom' James, former Stanford education dean, dies at 101
Henry Thomas James, a celebrated educator and leader, transformed and expanded Stanford’s School of Education during a tumultuous time in the nation in the mid and late 1960s.
Henry Thomas “Tom” James, the sixth dean of the Stanford School of Education and an accomplished educator, researcher and leader, died Sept. 30 in Golden Valley, Minnesota, more than a year after becoming a centenarian, which his family said was one of his goals. He was 101.
James, who was born May 19, 1915, spent most of his early life working as a teacher and an educational leader in Wisconsin. Stanford convinced him to move to California and work as a professor with expertise in educational finance in 1958 by promising free college tuition to all six of his children.
As dean, James led the School of Education, which is now the Graduate School of Education, for four years from 1966 to 1970. In that short time he left a profound legacy, laying the groundwork for the strong interdisciplinary research that has 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,” Carnoy said. “It was quite amazing—he recognized that education was moving in a new direction.”
The four years James was dean of the School of Education was also a tumultuous time, with protests on campuses around the country. “It was tough to be an administrator,” James’ daughter, Jennifer Regan recalled.
Regan described her father as “in charge of his life; always master and commander.”
James began his life on a farm near Viroqua, Wisconsin, where his ancestors started their homestead in the 1850s after going West from New Bedford, Massachusetts.
James attended a one-room schoolhouse and graduated in 1938 from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where he met Vienna Lewis (1916-2007), his wife of nearly 70 years and mother to their six children. After getting his bachelor’s degree, James got a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
During World War II, James captained a Navy ship deployed to the European front.
Following his time in the Navy, James took a position as an English teacher, and then later served as a school principal, district superintendent and associate state superintendent of education in Wisconsin cities. He then worked at the Wisconsin State Board of Education where a mentor encouraged him to get a doctorate. He then moved to Chicago in the 1950s, earning his PhD in education from the University of Chicago.
After his time at Stanford, which James recalled at his 100th birthday celebration as producing “very pleasant memories,” he returned 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. James led the foundation until his retirement in 1985.
Following retirement, James eventually returned to his Midwest roots, and settled in Minnesota near two of his daughters.
In addition to his professional accomplishments, James. strongly influenced his children, all six of whom earned graduate degrees.
“They raised us saying, ‘You can be anything you want,’” James’ daughter Regan said. Many of James’ children are educators themselves — including his son, Thomas James, who is the provost at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and Regan, a former teacher who 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.
Five of their six children studied at Stanford, and their oldest son went to Harvard University.
James’ family continues to have strong ties to Stanford. 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.
James and his wife are survived by their six children: Ann Grillo of San Francisco; Thomas James of New York; Jennifer Regan of Minneapolis; Maryellen Lewis of Lansing, Michigan; Betty Folliard of St. Paul, Minnesota; and Art James of Salem, Oregon; along with 17 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.
A memorial will be held on Saturday in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Memorials preferred to the Stanford Graduate School of Education, indicating in the memo line “H. Thomas James Fellowship Fund.”