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Thomas Olaeta

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Thomas Olaeta was born in Lovelock, Nevada on July 20, 1918. He was the eleventh of twelve children born to Jose and Florentina Olaeta who were emigrants from the Balboa area of the Basque province of Viscanya of Spain. He grew up in a non-English speaking home and didn’t learn English until after starting school.

Tom attended elementary and high school in Lovelock. He was active in sports including football, basketball, track and the hometown minor league baseball team. He was also active in music and drama and held many roles in entertainment productions. During summer times he worked in the hay fields and was a general helper in the local grocery store. In the winter times he got up at 4:45 AM to stoke the coal furnace at the high school. He was also a member of the National Guard.

Tom graduated from high school in 1937. He earned a football scholarship to College of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He followed his brother Joe there by four years. He worked in the dining hall and on the school grounds. This landscaping experience was very useful later in his career when he was overseeing the construction of new schools and developing their landscaping.

Tom’s life was greatly influenced by COP’s football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, “The Grand Old Man Of Football.” (Stagg coached football for 70 years until he was 98 years old. He came to COP when he was 70 years old. He coached at COP for 14 years. He was a pioneer in football strategy. Tom visited him when he was 101. Tom said, “He remembered me.” Tom had a tremendous respect for Amos Alonzo Stagg. He died in 1965 in Stockton at the age of 102.) Tom played several positions on the team and quarterbacked the undefeated 1938 team that played Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana and the University of Hawaii in Hawaii. These two games were a two-day train ride and a five-day ship ride respectively. Tom’s football nickname was “Terrible Tommy Tiger.”

Tom enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Corps in 1942 and served three and one-half years. In August 1943 he married his college sweetheart, Audrey Segale, in Lincoln, Nebraska where he was attending military aircraft school. Audrey later taught in Merced elementary schools. Tom attended several other aircraft engine schools and then taught aircraft maintenance at several bases before being honorably discharged from the Army Air Force in 1945.

When he returned to civilian life in 1945, Tom accepted a position teaching eighth grade in Escalon, California. His class of 42 students was mostly boys, several of whom had been retained. Many were big and tough and not interested in school. Tom started as the teacher following the Thanksgiving break in November. The kids had “run off” two teachers already that year. It was a real challenge for a young inexperienced teacher. His strict physical training and discipline first learned under Stagg and then as an Army sergeant was called into good use. He soon earned the respect and confidence of both students and staff and became a respected member of the community. He taught in Escalon for five years and developed many of their youth programs and also assisted coaching varsity football at Escalon High School.

During his time at Escalon he completed his education at College of the Pacific and earned teaching and administrative credentials. His only child Sandra was born during his time.

McSwain Elementary School in Merced County became the next challenge for Tom. It was a small rapidly growing district with one dilapidated and overcrowded building. He served as Superintendent-Principal for 1951-52 and began an intensive building program. The original school was on the north side of Highway 140. The Applegate Grange Hall was adjacent to the original campus. The new school was built on the south side of Highway 140 where it stands today. Building schools was to become the hallmark of Tom’s career.

The next year Tom moved to the Atwater Elementary School District as Principal-Assistant Superintendent. He became the Superintendent within the year when his predecessor, G. E. Walston, retired. Tom was immediately thrust into another building program. The district at that time had two campuses, one downtown and a relatively new one on Grove Avenue. It had about 25 teachers and 500 students. Bellevue School and an addition to the senior elementary at Mitchell were about to be built. During his time at Atwater, Tom built five new elementary campuses and added on to the senior elementary at Mitchell. The District grew to seven campuses and 4000 students.

Castle Air Force Base was the thriving heart of the community. Many of the students were from Air Force families or civilian contractors at the base. Public Law 874 federal funds for schools impacted by military facilities were a significant part of the District’s budget. Tom fostered good relationships with all the base personnel and contributed in many ways to their activities. He formed many lasting friendships with base personnel.

In 1966 the Atwater Elementary School District honored Tom by naming their new seventh school after him. His wife Audrey passed away in 1971. Tom retired after 26 years of dedicated service to the District in 1978.

Shortly after his retirement Tom married Julia O’Keeffe McCurry. They loved to dance and were fun to watch. Julia came to Atwater Elementary School District in 1956. Her first year was the opening year of the District’s fourth campus, Shaffer School. She was a divorced mother of four young children. Her sister helped encourage her to come to Atwater. Julia later became the principal of the new seventh campus Thomas Olaeta School in 1966. She served as principal there until her retirement in 1984.

Tom was a very active member of several community organizations. He served on the Board of Directors of the Atwater Chamber of Commerce for 20 years. He is the only person to have served as president for three different terms.

He was a member of Atwater Rotary Club for over 40 years and had perfect attendance for 40 years. He served in all of Rotary’s leadership positions. He was also a multiple Paul Harris Fellow with his support of the Rotary Foundation.

Tom coached Little League Baseball in Atwater for eight years. He was instrumental in developing Little League programs in Atwater. He also refereed basketball games in county tournaments.

Tom also served for 20 years on the Merced County Recreation Commission. He was instrumental in the expansion and improvement of Lake Yosemite, Hagarman and Henderson parks. He also worked on the acquisition and development of Winton Community Park, McSwain Natural Park, Harry Schmidt Park (Gustine) and O’Banion Park (Los Banos). He was the leader in the development of the policy of shared space and equipment between the schools and the city and county recreation departments.

After his retirement Tom and Julia began traveling. Tom is a history buff. They visited almost every state in the Union, searching out historical spots and enjoying the stories, cultures and communities along the way.

Trips to Europe included the countries of England, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and France. Then they took to cruising. They visited the Caribbean, Orient, Panama Canal, Alaska and South America.

Although Tom was active in the community during the time he worked for the School District, his interest and participation did not stop with his retirement. His interest in Rotary, the recreation committee, planning committees and Chamber of Commerce continued. He is a long time member of the United Methodist Church and served on their Board of Trustees, finance committee and building committee.

In his earlier years Tom was the first president of the George Bloss High Twelve Club. He was a 32nd degree Mason and a member of the Scottish Rite and Shriners. Other activities included March of Dimes, American Legion, United Way, Salvation Army, Atwater Fourth of July, California School Administrators Association, AARP, Bloss Hospital Foundation, Merced County Historical Society, Atwater Historical Society and the Merced Symphony.

Tom has received other honors besides the big one of having a school named after him. Atwater Rotary Club honored him with the “Outstanding Educator Award” in 2000. It sits proudly on his mantle next to his “Amos Alonzo Stagg Senior Award” of 1940. Tom adds that perhaps his most meaningful honor is the many friendships that he has made throughout his life.

Written by Julia Oleata with additions by Roger Wood, September 4, 2008