Meet La Jollan Tom Goodman, a good man

Former San Diego Superintendent Tom Goodman, 90, is neither too self-important nor too old to collect litter five mornings a week from Via Capri.

If you have driven Via Capri around 7 a.m., you may have spotted an older gentleman picking up trash in his jogging suit and wondered why. We did.

His name is Tom Goodman. He’s not on work-release. And his surname couldn’t be more apropos.

Five mornings a week, for 21 years, Goodman has tidied the half mile between the home he shares with his wife, Cynthia, and the Mt. Soledad Memorial. (The other two mornings, he attends breakfast meetings of the La Jolla Sunrise Rotary Club and the men’s group from the La Jolla Presbyterian Church.)

Goodman dedicated a career to public service and, although he retired in 1998, he doesn’t see a good reason to stop. (Besides, he recently turned 90 and says the walks are good for him.) From 1971 to 1982, Goodman was superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District.

Before that, he served the same role in Torrance, and you won’t believe why he had to leave. (We’ll let him tell the story.)

The Light joined Goodman on his regular Wednesday-morning clean-up, where he placed a metal bolt, a disgusting old sock and about a dozen plastic cups into a plastic Vons bag he brought from home.

Despite the 10 percent grade of Via Capri, Goodman never ran out of breath or riveting stories.

Let’s start off with why you left Torrance.

“There was a hit put out on me, an actual hit. The school board there had hired a consultant, Chester Ferguson, who worked with school boards, city councils and boards of supervisors on management issues.

He was very unpopular in the Torrance school system and several other districts. The teachers didn’t like him and were threatening to strike.

When I met with the board in closed session, they asked me to do an assessment of what I thought of him. I told them I thought that he was a real problem and they should let him go.

Unbeknownst to me, he and the school board president were having an affair, and she told him what I told the board. He was very angry, and he went to Las Vegas and met with some characters there about finding a hit man to ‘do me in.’ ”

How did you find out about all this?

“The hit man he was referred to was facing 5 to 25 years in Detroit for pushing drugs. So he turned to authorities and became an informant, hoping to work off time. Ferguson had spent two years under the USAID program in Colombia and, unknown to everyone at the time, had become a front man for importing drugs into the L.A. area And I was threatening his cover as a management consultant for government agencies.”

So what happened?

“The Torrance police, and county and federal agents, briefed me about their intended sting, which I was now an unintended part of. The authorities gave the informant my billfold and my class ring from Ohio State University, which I’m wearing right now, so Ferguson would have some kind of proof that ‘the killer had done me in.’ The police told me to get out of town on the weekend of the intended killing, and the Torrance police chief called me when they arrested Ferguson for paying off ‘the killer.’

The hardest part of the preceding weeks was when they told me I couldn’t tell anyone — staff or not even my wife and our four kids. That part was extremely difficult.”

Did you have to testify at Ferguson’s trial?

“For a month or so, every day of every week, I had to fly to L.A. from San Diego and be in the courthouse. He claimed some crazy things, like that I had an affair with his girlfriend in Las Vegas. I had not been in Las Vegas for years! So the jury convicted him, but his attorney got him out on bail on appeal.

The chief of police here had people looking out for me. A few days after the trial, I got a call from the chief telling me that Chester Ferguson drove to Fresno, checked into a motel, locked his room door and put a towel underneath it. He lit a barbecue grill that he brought with him, drank half a bottle of Scotch, downed most of a big bottle of Valium pills, climbed into bed and died of asphyxiation. And I got my first good night’s sleep in a long, long time!”

By then, you had already accepted a job as San Diego school superintendent, right?

“Yes. I got a call from my former boss in San Diego, where I had been assistant to the superintendent before Torrance. He told me he was leaving for Washington D.C. and recommended bringing me back. The board president asked if I would be interested and I said, ‘Would I ever!’ ”

How successful do you consider your career in San Diego?

“At the time, we were ranked as the premiere urban school district in the U.S. in a journal published by the National School Board Association. It was an honor to be superintendent of such a great district. I had 11 wonderful years. It was a great run with great people.”

You were superintendent during one of the first mass school shootings. (Brenda Spencer, 16, opened fire on Grover Cleveland Elementary from her house across the street on Jan. 29, 1979, killing the principal and a custodian and injuring eight children and a police officer. Spencer remains in prison.)

“That was a tragedy, a real shock. I knew the principal and the custodian. They were herding the kids off the playground into safe facilities when they got killed. Two wonderful people. That was tough.”

Do you think it represented any failures in the system?

“There was nothing we could have known to do. Apparently, in her case — like so many kids in shootings nowadays — she had emotional problems. But we were not aware of her emotional state. She apparently didn’t communicate what she was feeling with people, including her father, a single parent. And she had a small automatic .22 long rifle that her dad had purchased for her. He taught her how to shoot it.”

How often do you think about that?

“Quite often. It never goes away.”

So why do you pick up trash from the street?

“Because the City doesn’t anymore, and someone has to.”

Do you get a lot of appreciation from people as they drive by?

“Yes. They yell ‘keep it up’ or ‘thanks.’ But my favorite was coming upon a guy one day, walking ahead of me with a sack and picking up trash. I thanked him and he said, ‘I’ve seen you doing this for years and appreciated what you did!’ ”

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