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La Jolla Community Heroes: Tom Hassey made education a family affair during distance learning

La Jolla resident Tom Hassey (pictured with his dog, Coco) retired from teaching this month at age 83.
(Diana Olmstead)

La Jolla resident Tom Hassey’s path, in career and residency, has been anything but straight and narrow. He moved from Arizona to La Jolla to Chula Vista and recently back to La Jolla. He was a high school teacher in the 1960s, then took a break to run radio stations, own banks and be an entrepreneur before returning to teaching in the 1990s.

Hassey spent the past 25 years teaching economics and law at Chula Vista High School and retired at the end of the winter semester this month, citing his inability to drive due to macular degeneration at age 83.

“I would have kept on teaching until I was 100, but my eyesight is going and I can’t make the drive,” he said.

While everyone was navigating distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic before schools were open to in-person classes, Hassey saw an opportunity to make a difference for students and their whole family.

“The parents would listen in during class from offscreen,” he said. “So I’d tell my students to have their parents sit with them. I wanted to bring them in so they could be a part of their child’s learning. Many of my kids are from a low-income area, and at the beginning of the school year, I ask how many of their parents graduated from college. Very few hands go up. I want these kids to succeed, and if their parents are part of the learning process, it helps them climb that uphill battle.”

While he taught, parents often learned about things like interest rates alongside their children, he said. “That’s not just good for the kids to know, it’s good for adults to know. We talk about mortgage rates. One parent said they realized they paid too much money because they blindly trusted the lender and didn’t know what was considered a good rate.”

When school returned to in-person instruction, some students would call their parents and have the phone on in class so the parents could still participate. Hassey said he finds it “very rewarding” to see changes in his students’ — and their parents’ — lives.

“I always had good kids. Even when they were trouble, they were good kids,” he said. “I never had to kick a kid out of my class. Kids know if a teacher likes them or not. They can smell it. I would tell them I love them. I may be tough on them, but I love them. They know that.”

In the past, Hassey has used money left over from the sale of a radio station that he was part of to provide seed money when former students want to start a business or to help fund trips to visit colleges. “If you have the money, you should do something good with it,” he said.

Now at his La Jolla Shores home with his dog, Coco, Hassey said he’s not sure what he will do in retirement but suspects it will be something that betters the lives of young people.

“I’m going to take a month to decide what to do next,” he joked.

In the meantime, he’s glad to be back in La Jolla Shores. “The people are so genuine here,” he said. “I’m so happy to be living in La Jolla again.”

Community Heroes logo
(Daniel K. Lew)

The La Jolla Light’s Community Heroes series for the holiday period highlights people who aren’t often in the news but make a difference in the lives of others.