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Joseph William (“Joe”) Thomson died peacefully on Jan. 24 in Vacaville. He was born on Nov. 7, 1935, in Camden, N.J. His parents were Walter Tison Thomson and Nina Park Thomson.
Joe grew up in tiny Bettlewood, a section of Oaklyn, a small New Jersey town. He was not a model child. His sister remembers him patiently teaching her how to climb out of her second-story bedroom window and cross the roof to join their older brother Walter on midnight escapades. There were other activities, some not so frivolous.
However, at some point during his days as a student at Collingswood High School, Joe decided to change direction. He became a serious student and adopted the rigorous ethical standards that he kept for the rest of his life. After graduation, he worked and saved for four years before enrolling in Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) to train as a social studies teacher.
Older, handsome, intelligent, and witty, Joe was popular on campus, especially among the students with “work scholarships,” who served as the cleanup crew in the student dining hall, known as the “The Inn.” One of these workers was Mary Lee Ketelaar. Sparks flew and the couple became known as “Joseph and Mary of the Inn,” beginning a relationship that lasted 60 years.
Joe graduated from Trenton State in 1961 with a National Defense Scholarship and a new wife (the aforesaid Mary Lee). He spent the next few years earning a doctorate in educational psychology, program evaluation at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Ill. The couple had two children in Urbana, Pamela Joan and Lynda Mary, exceptional youngsters much admired by their proud parents.
In 1966, Joe was recruited by the dean of the new School of Education at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. A popular teacher and founder of the video lab, he formed many lasting friendships before returning “home” to join Pacific Educational Evaluation Systems in Palo Alto.
Joe’s favorite PEES project was a part of a team working in Washington, D.C. evaluating the functioning of a unit of the Department of Education. The team quickly realized that the unit had no function at all, made no contribution to the department and should be disbanded. They had a wonderful time in D.C. for the remainder of the contract period before the final report was due!
Joe continued to work in evaluating educational programs, sometimes in connection with the California Department of Education and sometimes on his own or with partners, for the rest of his professional career. He traveled to school districts and counties throughout California. His unique analytical skills and perceptions were highly valued by those with whom he worked.
In 1975, the family moved to Davis. Joe soon discovered an interest in local politics when his old friend Jim Becket ran for Yolo County Superintendent of Schools. Joe worked on several other campaigns, once helping Helen Thomson and Susie Boyd transition from index cards to computer files for campaign data. He later managed Elizabeth Zemmels’ successful campaign for County Superintendent.
In 1998, Joe was appointed to a vacancy on the Yolo County Board of Education. He served several unopposed terms as member and board president, retiring in 2012. His interest in politics and government went beyond the local scene. After the 2016 national election, he reread The Federalist Papers and quoted endlessly from Madison and Hamilton.
Joe was a “hands-on” guy. He could fix anything and build most things. He helped Habitat for Humanity build houses, added decks and rooms to the family house, moved walls, built furniture and redirected plumbing and wiring. His passion, however, was for all things mechanical, single-engine airplanes, Italian sports cars and scooters, motorcycles, stereo equipment and in later years, model trains. He was “into” computers from the earliest bulky models, learning to program in several languages, updating frequently as technology developed. His was a full and productive life.
Joe is survived by his wife of 58 years, Mary Lee, daughters Pam Babington and Lynda Thomson, grandsons Kyle and Kameron Bradbury, brother Walter Thomson, sister Nina Jane Persing (Norman) and nieces Beth Davis Hoeper (Dale) and Julie Huff (Alan).
There will be a gathering to celebrate Joe’s life at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, April 20, at the family home, 1513 Alice St. in Davis. All who know him are welcome to come and share Joe stories.
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