DR. ROGER TOMHAVE
DR. ROGER TOMHAVE
This Legend and Legacy interview was conducted by Hannah Kim Sions, a doctoral student in the Department of Art Education at Virginia Commonwealth University in March, 2018
HS (Hannah Sions): Thank you again for meeting me.
RT (Roger Tomhave): You’re welcome.
HS: The first question is: if you could say a little bit about yourself and maybe your childhood and early experiences, especially with art, and what influenced you to kind of get into the arts?
RT: I grew up on a farm in Northwestern Minnesota and went to the last one room schoolhouse to close in the state of Minnesota—they’re all gone now. I attended a one room schoolhouse and at that one room schoolhouse I guess there were maybe 30-32 students in grades 1 through 6. There was no kindergarten, and so I never attended kindergarten.
But it was very strict, I had a good friend whose name was Lee Samp, and the rule was that you needed to have your top button buttoned on a collared shirt at all times. We were playing in the playground in the morning—and this was probably in first grade. And whatever tussling we were doing, pshew, his button went flying and we couldn’t find it. We went to school and so the teacher called him up and said, “Mr. Samp, please come up here. Where is your button?” and he started crying right away because he knew he was in serious trouble. She said, “Mr. Samp, come here,” grabbed his collar, held it together, took her stapler and stapled his collar together. *laughs*
RT: I had always loved to draw. I would lay on our living room floor with the Sunday papers and draw the comics. I--even as a preschooler you know four, five years old--I would do that all the time. Now I’m in third grade at the country school and you were called up to the teacher’s desk. My class was actually the largest, seven students, in one class, and we were called up to the teacher’s desk, and we had our geography lesson. We were learning about the United States and the states and I, at the end of the lesson, you go back to your desk for seat time. I think one of the reasons I became interested in a teacher was because then later on, as an upperclassmen, I was kind of a mentor for underclassmen during this seat time when they were expected to work.
It was a strict school but one example I experienced had to do with drawing. When I was in the third grade, I was doing a little bit of busy work which was to draw a map of the United States with all of the lines of where the states are. I was just really good at that kind of thing because I’ve had all this practice drawing these cartoon characters and things out of the newspaper. I drew my little map, and then later, when she’s taking a break from classes, she was walking around and checking on everyone’s work, as teachers do, and she came to mine and she said, “Roger, you traced this, didn’t you?” Well, it was in the book, and there was a map up on the board. And I didn’t know what she meant by the word “trace”, so I said, “yes, I did”. And she took my drawing, smashed it and threw it in the trash. It was a really bad experience to begin with.
But shortly after that, the country school closed, and we were bused into town. The teacher I had my first year there was just a classroom teacher, not an art teacher, there was no art teachers at the elementary level. But she was a very good artist herself, or at least really appreciative of what I could do, so I became kind of the class artist. Then my elementary school in town I became the most artistic, and the most likely to succeed as a result, for my elementary school. I think that was a really early start that put me on, not only to education (but you know this), I always wanted to be an artist.
HS: What grade were you in when you started in, I guess, the classroom?
RT: Being bussed into town was fourth grade.
HS: Fourth grade, okay. And what about your parents? Having taught in a rural community, I know that views on art and artistic skills can be split—I guess that can be anywhere. Were your parents very supportive of your artistic endeavors?
RT: I’d have to say not so much. Although my mother was a really big influence, not so much in her ability to make art, but her ability to make lemonade out of lemons. Because she was really good at that. We were in 4H because we were on a farm but I made all kinds of artistic projects over the years. I remember one time I was making this woodworking project--it was a Santa Claus. I had drawn all my lines on this big sheet of plywood and cutting it out with a jigsaw, and errr *sound effect* went right across the arm. You know, there is no repairing that. But my mother just said, “Well, why don’t you just do this so it makes it look like the arm is going behind his back?” You know, it was a perfect kind of fix, so like any good teacher or art teacher, just had a way of making your mistakes work.
HS: She modeled creative and innovative ideas
RT: Yes, right, right.
HS: Nice! I know you sent me your resume, so I know about your education, but as for how you chose your career path? Was there ever a part of you that questioned or second guessed if this was what you were supposed to do?
RT: My father was really questioning whether or not an artistic path was a good one to go. But, he figured that if I got a teaching license, then that would be okay. I could be employed.
HS: Did you have the dilemma of teacher versus artist?
RT: Yes, I went to a community college because my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college. I paid for myself and I lived with my grandparents because my parents had moved at that point, but I had already started at the community college at my hometown.
RT: I had a really great artistic mentor, Charles Beck (he just passed recently), and he was an amazing, a very well-known regional artist for the upper Midwest. He really thought that I should be an artist, and that really was hugely encouraging. He not only taught me about drawing and painting, which were my major areas, but he also taught me calligraphy. To this day, I do a lot of calligraphy. I also learned sign painting—holding a ball and a calligraphy brush, so your wrist is solid and all the turning happens just right with your fingertips. I painted buses, and I did all of the signs for my community college outdoors and building signs. He just thought that I had a real bright future as an artist. But I already wanted to be a teacher, but he said, “No, you should not”
RT: I had the dilemma early on, but then I went to the University of Wisconsin. My mentor there was also in drawing and painting, but he was also in art education. So, he was amazing. Bill Ammerman was his name.
I don’t really think I would have made a decision based on my father’s influence. I think it may have even had more to do with other experiences like my brother was dyslexic and really struggled in school. I spent a lot of time assisting him with reading and writing, and it was very interesting, really, because when he moved from my hometown to the Minneapolis, St. Paul area, and attended school there, something kind of flipped in his brain--the dyslexia just went away. He had no memories of our growing up in our hometown. To this day, he doesn’t remember anything from our hometown. That was when he was in middle school, so he doesn’t remember anything from elementary or before.
HS: No trauma or no incident that can be pinpointed?
RT: I don’t think so. Not that he recalls or can name. But I really enjoyed helping my brother with his homework and I felt great pride when he understood something that we worked on together.
HS: Then, it was a lot of little experiences starting from helping other students and helping your brother, and the mentors you had.
RT: And I was always seen as the “art star”, you know, because I could do what a lot of people would have described as just talented; that these somehow were innate skills. But I have thought right from the beginning, “They just don’t know how much I’ve been practicing.”
HS: Yes! That’s awesome! Tell us about your teaching career. What positions have you held, and what did you learn from them. You’ve had a pretty big and long career. What do you think are the big changes in your career?
RT: Just some of the pivotal moments. I earned a McLaughlin Scholarship at the University of Wisconsin. And what that allowed me to do was an internship rather than student teaching. I got paid to be an intern, not at the elementary level—I did that student teaching placement—but at Stillwater, Minnesota, at Stillwater High School, I was a paid teacher. It was a part time salary but a full -time job. I had teachers who were really mentors rather than cooperating teachers because there were two other art teachers at the high school but they had their schedules and their rooms and I didn’t really see them in my room. I saw them more before and after school, and during planning times and things like that. I taught ceramics and that’s been a lot of my background: drawing, painting, and wheel throwing, especially ceramics. I still do that, I’ve got my own kiln and a potter’s wheel in my house, so that was one pivotal moment of getting that scholarship, so I knew that this was for me. I really enjoyed it.
My first job was teaching art on the White Earth Indian reservation in Northwestern Minnesota. I taught there for 11 years. Art teaching jobs were not easy to get in those days. I felt really grateful that I could get a job. I think I got it because I said, “Well, yeah, yes, I can do that—yes I can direct the musical.” You know, “or the comedic play every other year in the fall.” “Oh, Assistant basketball coach?” “I can do that.” “In the winter”. “Head golf coach?” “Sure, sure!” “Sure, I’ll do that, head golf coach.” Some spring was that. I thought I was going to stay there in that job just for the two years it would take to pay off my school loans, because it was the lowest socioeconomic county in the state of Minnesota. My federal loans were forgiven percentages each year.
RT: In order for my life to change, especially when I was married and then having small children, who I never saw at night because I had all those activities every single night, I started my masters at the University of Minnesota in 1986. I was going summers only and staying in my brother’s basement in Minneapolis for the summer with my wife and two small children.
My daughter[s] slept on upper and lower army cot, like a little twin bunk bed army cot. But it worked for the summer. Another pivotal moment is that I got both a teaching assistantship and a research assistantship. The research assistantship was paid by the Getty Institute out of Los Angeles. I went many times to the Getty Center in Los Angeles for training and was trained by my heroes to this day, the folks that are around here, at the NAEA conference. It was just really an astonishing time with a lot of money that was left by J. Paul Getty to the arts, but art education as part of that. I had some unbelievable training but one of those things that I was trained to do was to go out to the regional sites and to observe what was going on, especially the Minnesota site for Discipline-Based Art Education. I did a lot of research on other sites around the country, visited a few…
One of the things I discovered, and it was actually a part of my training, was to look for what would make a school system art program successful. In 1991 was when I came to Fairfax County. I’d already started to apply for higher education positions. And I was ABD (all but the dissertation completed on the doctorate) at that point; I’d finished all my coursework, but I hadn’t completed my doctorate. I’d started to interview for higher education position. Then I saw in the National Art Education Association placement journal an advertisement for Fairfax County Public Schools Art Specialist.
I did a lot of research on Fairfax County, and I saw that they had all of the things kind of in place that I had been researching about would make for a successful countywide art program or district wide art program. I went and interviewed. There were a couple reasons I think I was hired was one. Coming in, I think they thought “Tomhave” was something like “tomahawk.” They thought it was a Native American name. I think that might have been part of it. But on the other hand, I think they liked my sense of humor. In the interview, my assistant superintendent for instruction said, “Roger, how will you feel being in charge of the art education of 165,000 students?”
You know, how do you answer a question like that? I said, “Would I have to memorize their names?” *laughs* and the whole committee broke out [in laughter]. It was this panel interview and they all broke out laughing. I think that, you know, was part of my success there. Being very calm in the face of some overwhelming numbers and a large program. It was a very large program.
HS: May I ask about how old you were at that point in your career? Because that’s a big, very… that’s a job with a lot of responsibilities as you just said. So, I’m just trying to have this mental picture of, I guess, how old you must [have] been going in. Well, right out of college I went to the reservation, so… 35. 34?
RT: Well, I was 8 years as the Art Specialist, overseeing all their K-12 art programs. But then 12 years after that as the Fine Arts Coordinator, overseeing the music, theatre, visual arts, dance programs. So that was over 200 schools and over 1000 fine arts teachers. So…
HS: I know that Fairfax has a very good reputation for their arts program. It’s amazing to interview you and talk to you about this, and knowing that you were a very big part of that growth and that advocacy that must have necessary for Fairfax to have such a good program that their known for now.
RT: You know, and I think there was a really good reason for it. One, is, if I was good at anything, I was good at hiring really good people… among the fine arts staff, just really good people--and then, not micromanaging them.
RT: Getting out of their way, knowing that they were going to do really good things. And, so, my job title was “curriculum specialist”, and you know, I thought I was really good at that. In fact, my degree is in curriculum and instruction from University of Minnesota, Art Education as my major area, but curriculum and instruction. But, I saw early on that I needed to shift my perspective from curriculum. Because, and to this day I believe this very strongly, you can have the best curriculum in the world, and you put it in the hands of a poor teacher, and you might as well use it as a doorstop. You can have the worst curriculum in the world, and you put it in the hands of a really good teacher, and magic happens. So, I retooled all of the fine arts. Of course, we did curriculum projects, but I focused our fine arts department on simply interviewing, hiring, recruiting really good teachers. And to me, that made all the difference in the world.
HS: That is very good advice because, you’re right. We always think about, or are taught, that what matters are the lesson plans that we write and the content or theory behind what we do… but none of that matters if you’re not a passionate educator.
RT: Or if you received the lesson, and you can’t attach it to a theory, or you can’t attach it instruction… But I’d say another really pivotal moment for me in making the moves that I did was…as I was leaving the reservation, they knew I was going, they really appreciated my 11 years with the students on the White Earth reservation, so the tribal council made me an honorary member of the Ojibway tribe of Northern Minnesota. And they gave me a gift. And they found out what I would really want to do, I was the only art teacher in Hahnomen County, in Minnesota; there’s two elementary schools feeding into a middle school feeding into the high school and I was the art teacher for that school system. I said, “I just have never known anybody that does what I do in my teaching career.” When they asked me what kind of gift they could give to me I said, “I’ve always wanted to go to the National Art Education Association conference.” And so not… knowing that they’d receive no benefit from it, they sent me that year that I was leaving, in the spring, to the National Art Education Association conference and that happened to be in Washington, D.C. And I’ve been going ever since.
HS: So that was your very first NAEA conference? That’s so cool. That’s such a great story! And it also speaks so much to what you must have been like as an educator, the connections you made to your students…I mean, as I’m listening to your story I just infer how passionate you were, how considerate you must have been, how respectful you must have been so that they felt open and they were welcoming you, but not only welcoming you but wanted you to be a part of their family essentially.
RT: And I think I tried, every year, at JMU [James Madison University] to try to instill that in my students how important that is. And I say it to them this way: that students don’t care, they just don’t care what you know until they know that you care.
HS: Yes! I think those are such good…I think you’re right because we can’t teach if our students don’t believe that we care.
HS: And learning to be respectful and kind and compassionate towards our students is something that not only is really important but to some people, it’s not something that can be learned. And so, the fact that you are emphasizing that and that they have that opportunity as preservice teachers to learn it, if they struggle with it, I think, is really important. That’s amazing! Oh my gosh! This is such a great story!
RT: Oh, thank you.
HS: Looking back at your career, what do you consider were your goals and accomplishments, as an art educator and as an advocate for art education and as an artist? And what contributions do you think that you have given to art education?
RT: Looking back over my years in Fairfax county, having the impact on that big of a large community and that many students and that many teachers and that many administrators, I am very proud of my accomplishments. I don’t know the percentages, but my guess is that now about 30% of the elementary principals have arts backgrounds.
RT: It is a school system that is very supportive of the arts. And I helped to make that happen and I’m very proud of that. Especially through the FACE organization, our Fairfax Arts Coalition for Education, so that was one thing that I developed as an art curriculum specialist with our music curriculum specialist, Moe Turrentine. He said, “You know, anytime budget times get tough, we in the arts who are all vying for the same dollars from a board of supervisors in the state of Virginia, that’s just the way it works, when a Board of Supervisors give money to a School Board, we all vie for the same dollars, whether it’s schools or whether it’s the arts council in your community. We tend to circle the wagons and shoot at each other when it comes to fighting for dollars.” So, we organized a coalition that could work on bringing all of our arts community together so that we could speak with one voice and advocate for what was most important for our children and their education.
HS: I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that 30% of elementary principals have an arts background! I think those numbers speak to how much art is valued, how supported the teachers must feel to believe that they can take on such a leadership role…
RT: And also part of it is just developing leaders…
HS: Mhmm *agrees*
RT: …among those teachers.
HS: I mean, that’s just mind blowing to think about. And it’s amazing that you were the one spearheading this kind of movement. That’s so great!
RT: But it was the arts coalition for Fairfax county also had a huge impact, during the time that I was president of the Virginia Arts Education Association, and developed the Virginia Coalition for Education. And that was the organization and its advocacy efforts was what got funding for elementary arts, music, and P.E. teachers in the state of Virginia. So that was another huge accomplishment. But, these are not my accomplishments alone; they are a coalition effort.
So, go back to what I said about finding really great people and then letting them do what they do best.
HS: But I think it is also your accomplishments, like your ability to see and value. A good leader or manager doesn’t do all the work; a good leader or manager helps support their staff and workers to do the work that they need to do and to do it well.
RT: I think a part of it is holding a vision, and then convincing others that that vision is the right one. And helping them to see how they can help to push that vision.
HS: How did you decide to make the move to higher education? Because you could have stayed in Fairfax, I assume.
RT: I always wanted to come back to higher education. Although I have not a single regret for all my years in Fairfax county, as first the Arts Supervisor and then as Fine Arts Coordinator. I always told people I had the best job in the world. I never got to sleep very much, but best job in the world. *laughs*. And honestly, in that position, in that kind of position, there was no stepping-stone to anything else because it was one of the most successful school systems in the nation. Based on the number of arts teachers, and the number of fine arts teachers per student body, that percentage was the highest in the nation. And so, that was… I wanted to come back to higher ed. When I had the chance for early retirement and had maxed out the Fairfax retirement system and couldn’t do better, I decided to take that early retirement and that allowed me to come back to higher education and JMU.
HS: That’s amazing. So, last two questions. Especially so you can finish your lunch *laughs*. What goals do you think you… I mean you just spoke of so many goals that you achieved and things you’ve achieved at Fairfax but now you’re kind of… you’ve been at JMU... for…
RT: I started adjunct in 2010 and then was hired full time as an Associate Professor in 2012. This year was when I was eligible for tenure and successful in that pursuit. I’m getting tenure, and in August I’ll be named as full professor.
RT: Thank you.
HS: What is your next goal?
RT: Hiking all of the Appalachian Trail?
HS: That’s a good one!
RT: Carole [his wife] and I have already done all of the Shenandoah National Park Appalachian Trail. We have done about 120 miles so far. We love to hike, so… yes, eventually I will retire, but I do have art education goals still. I think they are broader at this point. My chapter, No Child Left Behind and the Visual Arts in 2014: The Predictions of Dr. Laura Chapman, describes the difficulties brought on by No Child Left Behind act. I wrote about it in Art Educators on Art Education, Kathy Schwartz’ 2014 compilation of all the speakers that have come to JMU.
RT: That we are still seeing across the nation, and especially as it relates for us in art education, as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) played out its implementation, especially in Virginia. Laura Chapman predicted NCLB would result in a national push away from public education, especially today, with a secretary of education who was homeschooled, doesn’t have public education experience, doesn’t support public education, and as a result of the public schools’ failure in No Child Left Behind and the target goals of achieving 100% student success by 2014. The chapter I wrote followed on Dr. Chapman’s predictions of NCLB which I found extremely accurate, that we had been set up for failure. And, because we were set up for failure, now we are at the lowest ebb in public opinion in American history as to the way public education in seen, according to the Gallup polls. As to me, there are not enough private industry, charter schools, and magnet schools that could take up what public education meant to do, and that was to give every child, every child, a chance to be educated. I think that in a lot of ways we are on the verge of the end of the American dream of a free, public education for every child.
HS: We’re going to turn this around! We’re going to end this on a good note!
RT: *laughs* Good. Well, my intention, then, is to have that not be the goal. I mean, that’s broader than art education.
HS: It’s broader, but it’s an important goal, it’s an essential goal. Thank you so much for your time, thank you so much, that was an amazing story! I have learned so much, and thank you for sharing with us.
RT: You’re welcome! You’re welcome.
Tomhave, R. (2014). No child left behind and the visual arts in 2014: The predictions of Dr. Laura Chapman, In Schwartz, K. (Ed.), Art Educators on Art Education, (pp. 43-58). Broadway VA: Branner Printing.