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Originally published January 25, 2013 at 9:16 PM | Page modified January 26, 2013 at 8:55 AM

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T.J. Vassar, pioneering African American educator

T.J. Vassar, a member of the Seattle School Board in the 1980s and the leader of an influential diversity program at Lakeside School, died Friday.

Seattle Times higher-education reporter

He was the rare leader who was comfortable with people from all walks of life, and whose charismatic personality made him one of the most beloved educators at Seattle’s private Lakeside School.

Thomas Vassar Jr. — everyone knew him as T.J. — died in Seattle on Friday morning of pancreatic cancer. He was 62.

In the 1960s, Mr. Vassar was one of the first three African-American students to attend the private school in North Seattle. And after serving two terms on the Seattle School Board, he returned to Lakeside for most of his career, working to make the school more diverse.

“There are just people in life you listen to, and he was one of them,” said Bernie Noe, head of Lakeside School.

As a Harvard-educated black politician, Mr. Vassar’s pioneering leadership helped make the city’s largely all-white establishment more comfortable with black leaders, said Metropolitan King County Council chairman Larry Gossett.

“From a very young age, he became a pioneer and an example for other young black people and what they could do to contribute and make the community better,” Gossett said.

Mr. Vassar was born in Seattle in 1950 and grew up in the Central Area.

In 1965, he was chosen to attend a free summer program at Lakeside, and later he was one of three African-American students invited to attend full-time.

In a speech last year, Mr. Vassar described his early impressions of Lakeside as a place “where the guys wore shirts and ties every day, and there were no girls, and where we were to be the first black students in the high school.”

Mr. Vassar said he twice refused an invitation by Lakeside to become a student: “Lakeside didn’t sound so appealing to my 14-year-old mind.”

But eventually, Mr. Vassar said, “this school changed the direction of my young life.”

Mr. Vassar graduated from Harvard University in 1972, and he moved back to Seattle with his new wife Lynda and a growing family. In 1981 he was elected to the Seattle School Board — at 30, the youngest person ever elected to the board — and served two terms.

Among other accomplishments, he helped win reparations for Japanese-American secretaries who had been forced to quit their jobs at Seattle Public Schools during World War II.

Mr. Vassar returned to Lakeside School to run the same program that had brought him there as a student. During his years as an administrator there, Lakeside became one of the most diverse elite private schools in the country, Noe said. Today, students of color make up 51 percent of its enrollment, and “he did it,” Noe said.

“He was the guy who stayed in the fight for 20 years — he was there the whole time.”

In his 2012 speech, Mr. Vassar said that when he joined Lakeside, “the school was so steeped in the culture of wealth and privilege that I never even considered a time when the school would have a global curriculum, instead of a Eurocentric curriculum, or that nearly half the student body would be nonwhite, or that nearly a third of the students would be on financial aid.”

His daughter, Asha Youmans, said Mr. Vassar consulted with other private schools throughout the country to help spread Lakeside’s diversity model.

One of the highlights of Mr. Vassar’s life was meeting President Obama during a fundraising dinner in Hunts Point last year. Youmans said her father had long believed that a black man would not be elected president in his lifetime.

Mr. Vassar “always fancied himself a bit of a basketball player,” Youmans said, and Mr. Obama gave him a signed basketball.

“It was really one of his proudest moments.”

Mr. Vassar is survived by his wife, Lynda; two daughters, Asha Youmans and her husband Jeff of Seattle, and Mikelle Page and her husband Jody of Seattle; a son, T.J. Vassar III, and his wife Elizabeth, of Seattle; his mother, Eva Vassar; and a brother, three sisters and seven grandchildren.

A public memorial will be announced in the coming months. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the T.J. Vassar Scholarship Fund at Lakeside School.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @katherinelong.

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