Passages: Nielsen Tam, 1945-2015

Passages: Nielsen Tam, 1945-2015

Michele Ellson
Niel Tam

Nielsen Tam, a longtime educator and second-term school board member hailed as a soft-spoken champion for Alameda’s youth and for equity in the Island’s schools, died Sunday night after a months-long battle with leukemia. He was 69.

“Niel helped us move forward as a school district and as a community, without looking for his own personal gain, but for the betterment of educating our children,” said Margie Sherratt, who worked with Tam both as an educator and school board member.

Echoing the sentiments of friends and colleagues, Sherratt called Tam “humble, a good listener, a broad and deep thinker, and a man with a great capacity to love and to bring out the best and most positive outcome in situations.”

“Niel seamlessly crossed all the boundaries of age, gender, education, ethnicity, and economics,” she said.

Other described him as a giving, caring man who contributed deeply to the community.

“Niel’s leadership – so often exhibited by his mentoring, taking the time to listen to students, parents, teachers, school staff and everyday citizens – will be missed on the school board and throughout Alameda,” said Ron Mooney, one of Tam’s former colleagues on the board.

Tam was born in 1945 in Chicago, the youngest child of Chinese immigrants. His family moved to San Francisco when he was 3. After Tam’s father died, when he was 5, his mother raised the family’s four boys on her own.

Tam was recruited to San Francisco State University’s special education program after volunteering for a summer at a camp, his wife, Judy, said, and he attended on a scholarship. He earned a pair of master’s degrees, in special education and school administration.

He met his wife through friends in San Francisco; they were engaged two weeks later and married during the first school holiday after he started work in Alameda. They were married for 44 years, she said.

Tam student taught in Alameda and decided to stay, even though he had better paying offers from two other Bay Area districts, Judy Tam said. She said she was unable to convince him to consider another district even when he couldn’t get an administrator’s job.

He stayed in Alameda and its schools for nearly four decades, earning a reputation as an educator who pushed the school district to better serve the needs of its most vulnerable children.

“Niel worked tirelessly on behalf of children and the (district),” school board president Barbara Kahn said. “He was a pioneer in his concern that we meet the needs of children with special needs and who were English language learners. The district continues to follow his lead in these pursuits.”

Tam taught special education in the Island’s schools for nearly three decades and stepped in as a substitute administrator for 11 of them, joining the district’s administrative ranks as an assistant principal at Will C. Wood Middle School in the 1990s. A community debate over the school district’s lack of people of color in leadership roles helped to propel Tam into the principal’s chair at the former Miller Elementary School, making him the district’s first Asian American principal; he served there for nine years.

While there, Tam helped raise $300,000 for new playground equipment. He also served for two years as principal of the former Washington Elementary School (now Maya Lin School), a then-struggling school that saw test scores jump on his watch. Tam also aided in the development of Ruby Bridges Elementary School, which opened in 2006.

After retiring from the district, he ran for the school board in 2008, besting four other candidates to capture a seat. He was re-elected in 2012 and served as the board’s president in 2013.

On the board, he continued his advocacy for the district’s most vulnerable students. Tam backed a lawsuit against the state that seeks to equalize school funding among districts and was one of three board members who faced a threatened recall after he voted to approve lessons aimed at curbing anti-gay bullying.

Colleagues also remembered him as a mindful, thoughtful presence on the school board who sought to create harmony among board members whose points of view and priorities were deeply different.

“With a few words and a neutral tone, Niel could effectively get his colleagues to focus, relax and move forward despite our differences of opinion,” said Tracy Jensen, who served with Tam on the school board between 2008 and 2010. “Niel understood that the best community decisions could only be made when each individual felt free to share their opinion, confident that their point of view was respected.”

Tam’s community service included stints on the city’s Commission for Disability Issues and the boards of the Alameda Food Bank, Girls Inc. of the Island City, the Alameda Point Collaborative, the Alameda Multicultural Center and the Boys & Girls Club of Alameda. He was also active in the Buena Vista United Methodist Church and the Alameda Soccer Club.

His leadership earned him the San Francisco Foundation’s Koshland Civic Unity Award, in 2002, and an American Red Cross Award for Community Service, in 2008. He was also a Coro Northern California Community Leadership Program Fellow, in 2006.

In addition to working for children and schools, Tam taught tai chi and chi gong for a quarter century and was a Reiki master for 20 years.

Tam is survived by his wife, Judy; two sons, Chris and Austin; a daughter-in-law, Rose; and four grandchildren.


Submitted by Bill2 (not verified) on Fri, May 29, 2015

Neil Tam had a wonderful sense of humor as well. He was a great audience for my bad jokes. The last time I was able to spend quality time with Neil was at the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park clean-up day a year or so ago. Neither one of us wanted to dig up weeds, so we stood back and had a wonderful conversation. I'll remember Neil with a smile on his face, and when I do, that makes e smile. God bless Neil.

Submitted by John Western (not verified) on Fri, May 29, 2015

He was a great guy and I'm glad to have met him.

Submitted by Dave Hewitt (not verified) on Fri, May 29, 2015

I knew Neil as a fellow director of the Alameda Community Fund for the last several years. I don't know how he found the time but he did and I am inspired by his commitment to our youth and community. May you rest in piece Neil, you earned it. God bless.

Jon Spangler's picture
Submitted by Jon Spangler on Fri, May 29, 2015

Like Bill2 and others, I remember Niel Tam for his sense of humor as much as for his decades of remarkable teaching and leadership on behalf of Alameda's students. The best memorial we can offer is to continue his work with the same compassion, courage, steadfastness, and sense of justice that he exercised every day. Thank you, Niel Tam.

Submitted by april hamilton (not verified) on Wed, Jun 3, 2015

Niel was a wonderful man and will be missed by many. It was an honor to know him.