Henry Thomas “Tom” James was born on 19 May 1915 and grew up on a farm near Viroqua, Wisconsin.
He served in the navy during the Second World War, captaining a ship deployed on the European front, and his “master and commander” persona proved highly effective when he went on to work in Wisconsin as an English teacher, school principal, district superintendent and associate state superintendent of education.
This culminated in a position at the Wisconsin State Board of Education, where he was encouraged to get a doctorate. Professor James therefore moved to Chicago, where he gained a PhD in education from the University of Chicago.
His new qualification, together with his expertise in educational finance, made him highly attractive to universities. Stanford University managed to lure him out to California in 1958 with an offer of free college tuition for all his six children. A teaching role then led to the position of dean of the School of Education (now the Graduate School of Education) for four turbulent years from 1966 to 1970, during an era of nationwide campus protest.
Despite his relatively short tenure, Professor James soon proved a bold and imaginative dean who put a strong stress on the interdisciplinary research that remains central to the school today.
“He transformed the school very quickly,” recalled Martin Carnoy, Vida Jacks professor of education at Stanford. “He created new positions in economics, organisational studies, philosophy and political science. 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.”
After leaving Stanford, Professor James moved back to Chicago to serve as the first president of the Spencer Foundation, which provides grants to research projects dedicated to improving education and teaching.
Although he retired in 1985, he was determined to reach the age of 100 and kept fit and active enough to achieve his goal last year. Even in his nineties he remained in touch with some of his former PhD students who have gone on to become educational leaders across the US. One group, who call themselves “the James boys”, took him out for a surprise dinner only a few years ago.
Professor James died on 30 September and is survived by his children, 17 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.