Thomas Wilson, an Associate Professor of Education at Chapman University, left his mark on many before his passing in late December 2018. Colleagues, friends, students, and mentees remain moved by his strong fellowship. At Chapman, Wilson also served as the Director of the Masters of Arts in Education Program (1992–1998) and was the Cofounder and Director of the Paulo Freire Democratic Project (1998–2018).

Wilson was a close friend of renowned Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire and himself inspired others with his teachings and writings on critical pedagogy. He valued improving the lives of those less privileged and sought to change the world through education.

Career and legacy

Tom Wilson (center) with Attallah College colleagues meeting in his home

Tom Wilson (center) with Attallah College colleagues , from left to right, Drs. Suzanne SooHoo, Don Cardinal,

After serving as a US Naval officer during the Korean War, Wilson went on to teach social studies in middle school and high school and work as an administrator in Los Angeles and Orange County area schools, while simultaneously pursuing an Ed.D. at the University of Southern California. He also taught social science and education at Cal Poly (California State Polytechnic University) Pomona and the University of California, Irvine.

In January 1992, Tom became a full-time professor at Chapman University, where he directed the Master of Arts in Education program and co-founded the Paulo Freire Democratic Project (PFDP) in 1996. The PFDP is a collection of local, regional, and international initiatives based in Chapman’s Attallah College of Educational Studies. These initiatives reflect Freire’s political, pedagogical, and ethical imperatives and capture his democratic struggle for social justice. Chapman is also the home of the Paulo Freire Archive, a vast assortment of pedagogical works including handwritten notes by Freire on critical pedagogy. Wilson was a personal friend of Freire’s, and after a handshake agreement, they agreed that the PFDP would be established in southern California at Chapman University.

Over the course of his career, Wilson was a Founding Research Scholar at the Paulo and Nieto Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy at McGill University. He also lectured and held workshops internationally and gave more than 100 presentations at various academic conferences and venues. The themes of his work focused on democratic education, organizational behavior, educational ethics, moral education, critical pedagogy, and social justice.

Friends and colleagues remember his eminent character

Friends and colleagues remember that some of Wilson’s most prominent characteristics were his ability to inspire, his genial nature, and his ability to raise perspective-changing questions.

Friend and colleague Barbara Tye,Ed.D., Attallah College Professor Emeritus and former dean,  remembers meeting Wilson in the mid-1980s at a meeting of Educators for Social Responsibility: “I was delighted when he joined us at Chapman, and continued to be inspired as, time after time, he would speak up towards the end of a contentious discussion and pose just the right ethical question to put it all in perspective for us.”

Don Cardinal, Ph.D., professor and former dean of Attallah College and Director of the Thompson Policy Institute, considered Tom Wilson a lifelong friend.  “Tom would calmly question his colleagues, guiding the group back toward its stated mission, and equally important, back to its stated processes of democracy, collaboration and authenticity of intentions.” Speaking directly to his friend, Dr. Cardinal went on, “You leave us the knowledge that we can simultaneously behave morally while thinking big and accomplishing grand things. We will miss you. The world will miss you.”

Those privileged to have worked with Wilson remember his humility and unwavering aspiration to make the world a better place.

Anaida Colón-Muñiz, , Ed.D, (Attallah College Professor of Scholarly Practice and Director of Community Education at Chapman’s Centro Comunitario de Educación, a community-based education center in Santa Ana, California) met Wilson at a UC Irvine event hosting Freire in the 1980s. Dr. Colón-Muñiz said that Wilson has been a major influence on her life and career:  “I will always hold dear the memory of Tom as a great mentor and support, who always dreamed of a better world for our children, and for us too.”

Upon hearing of his passing, Nita Freire, Paulo Freire’s wife, wrote from Brazil that Wilson “was loved and valued by Paulo and me… I too have extreme tenderness for him: a courteous man, extremely sensitive, always willing to help the other, never competing with his colleagues, genuinely a humanistic man.”

Final reflections

In his last few days, Tom Wilson dictated to his wife Jean Wilson the following message to friends and colleagues in the Paulo Freire Democratic Project:

“As the evening draws nigh, there is no way I can express my love, respect and companionship for each and every one of you throughout the past years. My only regret is that I will not be able to continue this loving relationship much longer.

One of my greatest joys is that I have known and learned and worked with Paulo. My even greater joy is knowing that his work will be carried on, in conjunction with you in the Paulo Freire Democratic Project, and my expectation is that you will continue to all collaborate in the name of what he stands for.”

Suzanne SooHoo, Ph.D., Attallah College Jack H. and Paula A. Hassinger Chair in Education and Co-Director of the PFDP, remembers that Wilson loved sharing this passion with others. “It was his way of testing ideas for their democratic strength and capacity to serve the common good. While Tom is no longer physically with us, his absence does not diminish the power of his ideas.”