Celebrating the Life of Professor Thomas C. Wilson, 1930-2018: Freirean Educator and Social Justice Activist

Tom 2014 with Freire bust.jpg

Friends of Tom Wilson were saddened to learn of his death at the end of December, 2018.  Tom was a long-time, active AME member, who hosted the AME conference in both 1989 and 2004, served on the Executive Board from 2002 to 2005, and presented his work at several AME conferences in the United States (Athens, Newport Beach, Notre Dame, Pasadena, and St. Louis), Canada (Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver), Poland (Krakow), and Scotland (Glasgow).  At Chapman University in Orange, California, Tom was the Director of the Master of Arts in Education Program (1992-1998) and then the Director of the Paulo Freire Democratic Project (1998-2018), which he co-founded. His academic publications include Memories of Paulo (Sense, 2010) and “Liberation Pedagogy” in L. Sullivan (2009), The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences.

In his last days, Tom dictated the following to his beloved wife, Jean Wilson, for his Chapman colleagues:

“As the evening draws nigh, there is no way I can express my love, respect and companionship for each and every one of you throughout the past years.  My only regret is that I will not be able to continue this loving relationship much longer.  One of my greatest joys is that I have known and learned and worked with Paulo. My even greater joy is knowing that his work will be carried on, in conjunction with you in the Paulo Freire Democratic Project, and my expectation is that you will continue to all collaborate in the name of what he stands for.”

Not long after sending this message, Jean sent out another.  "It is with love and compassion and relief that I tell you Tom passed peacefully away Sunday night, Dec. 30th, with his four children at his bedside, after a very collaborative time of it as he would have hoped for.  Please send this on to the others he worked with so closely for SO MANY YEARS!" –Jean Wilson, Jan. 1, 2019

To continue the celebration of this great man’s life, we present some thoughts and tributes from some of Tom’s closest friends, mentees, and colleagues.  These comments reveal the extent of influence, level of respect, and the strong love and sense of camaraderie that Tom evoked in so many:

“Tom Wilson’s impact on democratic moral education lives on in the lives of countless students and teachers committed to bringing about social justice through solidarity with the poor. Tom deeply influenced our articulation of the just community approach as a “pedagogy” of empowerment and liberation. A leader within the Association for Moral Education for decades, Tom’s prophetic stance deepened our shared commitment to putting the needs of the marginalized first among our priorities.”  — Clark Power, email, Jan. 9, 2019, South Bend, IN

“Tom was a close friend and "discípulo" of Paulo Freire, believing strongly in the importance of critical pedagogy as a way of changing education and the world, especially for the most disenfranchised and oppressed. Tom was a wonderful mentor, friend, and public intellectual. He always gave us time to pause and think about possibilities, even in the most challenging situations. He was a true Freirean!”  — Anaida Colon-Muniz, email excerpt, DATE, LOCATION

“Tom Wilson and I first met in Cambridge in 1980 at one of those meetings at Harvard when AME was more of a special interest group than a professional association. Over the nearly four decades that have passed since that introduction, Tom and I would huddle together for a few hours or days each year, to reflect on the course of moral education and our own peculiar vision for its future. Whether at an annual meeting of AME or AERA or the occasion to travel to southern California, Tom and I were locked in conversations that moved fluidly among the appropriate criteria for judging Mexican food to the latest experiment in critical pedagogy to our dreams for our children to the moral dilemma created by the death of his neighbor's cat. Always we would recall our days introducing the Russians to democratic education in Moscow while riding ‘the Terminator’--a Rube Goldberg model of Russian automotive ingenuity that carried us daily to and from our hotel, complete with a prominently displayed poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I still cherish the baseball hat Tom designed, complete with flames down each side and boldly monogrammed with ‘Larry 7,’ Tom's particular response to those critical of Kohlberg's efforts to articulate a sixth stage. Such was Tom's sense of humor encased in his passion for democracy and his firm commitment to social justice. His was a life of giving to and for others. His critique of the state of affairs for this or that current social ill was always tempered by his own humility in effecting much needed change. I will miss that twinkle in his eye and that wry smile that telegraphed his belief that we should take these problems, but not ourselves, seriously. Such is the legacy of a life well spent and the lesson that there is no problem so big that it can't be solved with persistence and perspective.”  — Richard L Hayes, email excerpt, Jan. 14, 2019, Athens, GA.

“Ken and I first met Tom in the mid-1980s, at a meeting of Educators for Social Responsibility. I was in awe of him; which--when I told him that, many years later--he found hilarious. I was delighted when he joined us at Chapman and continued to be inspired as, time after time, he would speak up towards the end of a contentious discussion and pose just the right ethical question to put it all in perspective for us. Many times, since then, when confronted with an ethical dilemma or complex moral issue, I find myself asking myself, "What would Tom say?"--and it usually guides me well. I am now, as Quakers say, holding him and Jean in the light as he faces his last difficult task.”  — Barbara Tye, email excerpt, Nov.  27, 2018, CA.

 “Unlike many Freireans who intellectualize the Pedagogy of the Oppressed at the level of written discourse and academic blah, blah, blah as Paulo Freire would often say, you [Tom] were always organically connected with the community, organizing, getting your hands dirty, and struggling always to practice democracy that liberates the people who, for no fault of their own, became victims of our corrupted democracy that cynically equates democracy with freedom of the market---the very market that obscenely rewards a small minority while sentencing billions of people to human misery, hunger, and dehumanization. In my many discussions with Paulo over 15 years uninterruptedly, your name would invariably come as an example of a scholar activist who truly understood and embodied his pedagogical proposals and his ideals. Your commitment to social justice, your generosity of heart devoid of any self-interest, and your humility did not go unnoticed by Paulo and those of us who embrace his ideas and ideals with integrity, coherence, and unselfishness.”  — Donaldo Macedo, email excerpt, Dec. 28, 2018, Boston, MA.

“My heart is saddened by this news. At the same time, I am happy to know that Tom's spirit, his love of learning and his humanity will live on. My condolences to his entire family and to all of us who were his very "extended family" through his teaching, writing, and the example of his life.” — Sonia Nieto, email excerpt, Jan. 2, 2019, Amherst, MA.

“Indeed, Tom will continue to live [in] his actions, [in] the love he shared, and in the inspiration he will continue to be for many. May this new year be an opportunity for all of you to strengthen your love for those you care for, to renew friendships and establish new ones, to cultivate your talents and discover new ones, to capture and share your thoughts while you also care for your health and rejoice in the light of your inner self. In friendship and solidarity.” — Alma Flor Ada, email excerpt, Jan. 2, 2019. San Francisco, CA.

“Such sad news, but I’m sure a blessing of peace is also in place. Tom was a really good guy and one of my all-time favorite people to be around. I’ll never forget the one symposium we all supported on ethics -- a fond memory.”  — Ky Kugler, email excerpt, Jan. 2, 2019, Orange, CA.

Tom was such a loving, smart, and humble man. He loved Paulo, was inspired by his work, and patterned his own life and teaching after Paulo's vision. I remember when I first met him in California, he was so warm and enthusiastic--no resentful bone in his body. Such a terrible loss, but he left us with a great and wonderful legacy. We will miss you, Tom.  — Henry Giroux, message excerpt, Jan. 3, 2018, Ontario, Canada.

“It was a Big Dream. Our heads were filled with possibility amidst a complex web of tasks and imaginings. We needed our North Star and Tom never wavered. We stayed the moral course thanks to Tom’s gentle, steady, and persistent nudging. He would calmly question his colleagues, guiding the group back toward its stated mission, and equally important, back to its stated processes of democracy, collaboration, and authenticity of intentions. Not once, but maybe 50 times over the years, Tom found ways to slow the runaway train, and minimize the wandering and wavering of the group, but always in a kind, yet firm manner. Thanks, Tom. You leave us the knowledge that we can simultaneously behave morally while thinking big and accomplishing grand things. We will miss you. The world will miss you.”  — Don Cardinal, email excerpt, Jan. 4, 2019, Orange, CA.

“I first met Tom 30 years ago when I was an elementary school principal attending a conference convened by UCLA’s John Goodlad, known for his work in A Study of Schooling. As a young principal who strived to be a visionary progressive educator, I was intrigued with the opening activity of Tom’s workshop. He asked us to think for a moment and erase all notions of schooling, to figuratively burn the schools down as we knew them. Then, using butcher paper and crayons, he asked us to imagine and draw the ideal school – the classrooms, the students, teachers, teaching and learning. I thought to myself, was this treason or a strategy to unlock the brain with shock and awe?... It’s hard to believe Tom will no longer be physically in our future. I have relied on him, and he has listened to me all through the years without judgment. Some people think I am a Freirean but really, I have always been a Wilsonian. I have come to know Paulo through Tom’s eyes and even though we have been criticized for not being ‘critical’ enough, I have always been reassured by him.”  — Suzanne SooHoo, email and journal excerpt, Jan. 4,2019. Orange, CA.

“Thank you so much for including me in the email about our beautiful friend Tom. He was such an inspiration.” — Kimberly White Smith, email excerpt, Jan. 4, 2019. LaVerne, CA.

“Tom would be (is?) gently smiling and nodding his head. These lyrics from the song, For a Dancer, by Jackson Browne, remind me of him.

‘Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive, but you'll never know.’”

— Jim Brown, quoted in his email, Jan. 4, 2019, Orange, CA.

“I only met Tom briefly but remember his gentleness and thoughtfulness.”  — Kaye Cook, email excerpt, Jan. 7, 2019, Wenham, MA.

“I just saw a post about Tom's passing, I am so saddened by this news…He was such an instrumental mentor/teacher in my life...” “Wonderful person; great teacher.” “A gentle and kind soul.” “Made a wonderful mark in this world.” “Tom was great.” “RIP Dr. Wilson!” “Amazing man, amazing mentor.”  — Karen Cadeiro-Kaplan, summary of social posting by students and colleagues at Chapman.

“’Memories of Paulo’ was a book project that Tom Wilson and Peter Park envisioned, in which they could capture the memories of all who knew and remembered Paulo Freire. When Tom invited me to join them as third author, I was thrilled. We both were now at Chapman, planning to change the world, with all of our Freirean and education colleagues. My first encounter with Tom [occurred] at UC Irvine in the 1980s, when they hosted Paulo at an event…. (I still have the notebook where I jotted down Tom’s name and number.) Who knew that 20-plus years later he would have been such an influence on my life! I will always hold dear the memory of Tom as a great mentor and support, who always dreamed of a better world for our children, and for us too. — Anaida Colón-Muñiz, Jan. 9, 2019. Orange, CA.

“Very sad indeed. I remember Tom with enormous affection and admiration as a man of humility, generosity and great good humour. Many an evening he, Richard Hayes, and I would put the world to rights over a beer. He was forever pushing the boundaries in pursuit of social justice, and his commitment to conscientization was unsurpassed. A loss to all of us who knew him.” — James C. Conroy, email excerpt, Jan. 6, 2019, Glasgow, Scotland.

“Tom Wilson …was loved and valued by Paulo and me… Donaldo [Macedo] told me…how much Paulo held him as his best friend and talked of Tom's humility and clarity…. He would have been one of the few… who never asked to be introduced to others to promote his teaching career. I too have extreme tenderness for him: a courteous man, extremely sensitive, always willing to help the other, never competing with his colleagues, genuinely a humanistic man…If it is possible to compare... divine Love is the same as Paulo and I have for him.” “At the moment of tribute to him, please, remember me [as] a person that [has] for him enormous admiration.” — Nita Freire, email excerpt, Dec. 21, 2018, Brazil.

Please join us in commemorating Tom Wilson’s life. Add your own memories in the comments below.

Suzanne SooHoo, Anaida Colón-Muñiz, John Snarey