People: John Tuomy: speaking his mind

Publication Date: Wednesday Mar 11, 1998

People: John Tuomy: speaking his mind

A recent newspaper headline quoted Palo Alto school board member John Tuomy as asking the community to "trust" the board on making a decision about the opening of a new school. He was the only board member quoted in the article.

"He doesn't dress up his opinions. He cares more about the result than whether people like him," said Carolyn Tucher, a former school board member who co-led the city's school bond campaign with Tuomy.

"John just reacts from the heart," she said.

That's what happened in the early 1970s when Tuomy, who had dropped out of law school, decided to help tutor children in his wife's east San Jose classroom. "I'd go home and think about it, and think about different ways to get through to the kids. It was one of the first jobs I'd done that I really enjoyed doing, and I couldn't believe people got paid to do it."

Tuomy, 51, was born in Spokane and moved to Palo Alto with his family in 1949. He went to Besse Bolton's Nursery School and Van Auken School. He attended Jordan Junior High ("I could hop over the fence to go to school") and then Paly. His parents still live in the family home on Garland Drive.

He remembers driving to church and going by the land now occupied by Fairmeadow School and Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School. It was a sugar beet field.

After brief stints at Foothill College and the University of Oregon, Tuomy transferred to San Jose State University. "It was like this (El Nino) weather," he said of Oregon. "It was just awful. I couldn't stand the weather."

He studied political science, and in 1968, went to work as an intern for former Congressman Don Edwards. He worked with the Mexican-American Political Association and residents of east San Jose. He left to work for a group trying to get more equal representation on the San Jose City Council. The effort led to the present districting system.

After 18 months at Golden Gate University Law School, Tuomy decided he didn't like the "cram and memorize" approach to education. "I took a leave, and I'm still on leave."

After discovering his love for teaching, he got his teaching credential in the early 1970s, and was one of two people in his graduating class that was hired. "People said 'why are you going into education?' because there were no teaching jobs."

He student-taught in east San Jose and then at Barron Park School in Palo Alto. He was hired as a fourth-grade teacher at Palo Verde School. After five years, he was offered a job in the district's gifted program, and eventually became the district's computer coordinator.

"It was before Apple, even," he said. There were no computers in classrooms, as there are today, and certainly no Internet. "We were timesharing on the district's HP 2008. I'd finish teaching and I'd spend hours on the computer."

In 1977, he administered a $250,000 federal grant to teach children how to tutor each other on computers.

Two years later, with two young children to support, "I wanted to take a look at making more money. I only left the school district to make more money."

He worked at a computer product distribution company, and then at two startups--one building add-in boards for personal computers, the other with Macintosh education products.

In 1988, he was hired as the vice president of sales and marketing for Leemah Datacom Security Corp. in Fremont, and became CEO in 1990. The company produces password generators for hand-held computers, laptops and computer networks. "Our claim to fame is we have this down to such a small footprint, we can put this in just about anything."

His job brings him to Asia, Australia and Europe. "I see the Silicon Valleys of almost everywhere."

His next venture is to try to combine the computer security with education, or educational technology.

He doesn't see the world of education and the world of business as being that different.

"The business I'm in has a goal that's greater than just making money. (We're) helping to open communication so all the people in the company can have access and do it safely. The need to have people understand how important security is, is the same as the need for people to understand the need for schools."

A few years after Tuomy left teaching, he got involved in local education again over the proposed Gunn High School closure in 1987. "I was disagreeing with what the school district was doing. I wasn't critical of everything, (but) I'd always felt free to voice my opinion."

"He fought hard against the Gunn closure," recalls Tucher, who was on the school board in 1987. "He could be the link between people who were really upset and people who were really supportive. There is nothing mealy-mouthed about him."

Tucher admits helping to twist his arm to run for school board in 1995.

He sees his role on the school board as being an important responsibility. "You've always got the community . . . it's hard to make mistakes. The community's keeping track."

Tuomy is in a unique role on the board, as a parent, former teacher and businessman. The roles became blurred several years ago when the board was considering a controversial new math curriculum. "I like that kind of teaching (with an emphasis on problem-solving), but the one missing ingredient was there was no textbook. I could see it as a teacher and as a parent."

With the little free time he has, Tuomy likes to spend it with his family, his wife Carolyn and his daughter Erin, 21, a senior at Santa Clara University, and son Brian, 18, a senior at Gunn High School. The family lives in an Eichler home on Scripps Court in Greenmeadow.

"My favorite place in Palo Alto is Greenmeadow. I really like walking around my neighborhood," he said.

--Elizabeth Lorenz 

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