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Jerry Tagami


1943 - 2016 Obituary Condolences
Jerry Tagami Obituary
May 13, 1943 - September 11, 2016 Newport Harbor High School, and the entire community, has lost one of its finest. On Sunday, September 11, Jerry Tagami, an extraordinary teacher at the school for 33 years, passed away quietly. He was 73. Jerry was born in 1943 in Gila River, Arizona, in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. His father fought with the American army in Europe as part of the illustrious 442nd battalion. After the war, his family moved to Chicago where Jerry excelled in school. He came west after high school to attend Cal State University Los Angeles, and his academic abilities eventually brought him to UC Irvine for a Masters degree in English Literature. He began work on his PhD, but fate had other plans for this talented young man. In 1970, he was offered a job at Newport Harbor High School, and at first he saw this as a temporary detour on his path to teaching university-level English. But then something unexpected happened-he fell in love with teaching high school. His erudition was immediately obvious to his students and to fellow teachers. He truly loved the written word, and saw it as his goal to inspire that same love in his students. He was a strong academic, but was also open to new thinking about the best ways to motivate students. For example, he brought Simon and Garfunkel lyrics alive as poetic verse. His classroom was exciting with an air of unpredictability-he would spontaneously bring his class outside to view and discuss his motorcycle, then have them read passages from "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." This would of course trigger an interesting writing assignment. Jerry was a leader in innovation, and in an effort to attract students who were not interested in standard English literature classes, he offered electives in "Rock Poetry," 'Pop Culture," and "American Film." Whatever class he offered was wildly popular, with a waiting list of students eager to enroll. In the 1980s, Jerry was elected Department Chair and served in this position for the next 20 years. During his tenure the traditional tracking program classes was abolished, and students were encouraged to challenge themselves. He advised the student literary journal, Flotsam & Jetsam, and anchored the Honors program in the 10th and 9th grade. Later, Jerry was a core teacher in the highly-regarded Da Vinci Academy. Over the years, he won numerous awards, and was named "Teacher of the Year" during the time when every student voted for this honor. To his great joy, in July of 2002 Jerry married Diane Arvizu, who is an essential part of Newport Harbor High School's staff. They traveled together to Paris, and had plans for a trip to London when tragedy struck. On February 3rd, 2003 Jerry suffered a brain aneurysm, which nearly took his life. The waiting room of the hospital overflowed with students, colleagues, and friends. His condition stabilized, but he lost much of his short-term memory, although his memory of the past remained vivid. He retired in 2004 because of this condition, otherwise he would have stayed in the classroom he loved. In June, 2015, Jerry was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, which eventually took his life. He is survived by his wife Diane, his step-daughter Jessica and her husband Jake, their two sons Chance and Miller, and by the generations of students whose lives he touched. By using words to reveal a wonderful world beyond the classroom, Jerry Tagami helped his students see the power of learning-to affect change, to create beauty, and even to escape the grips of difficult times. He will be missed.
Published in the Los Angeles Times from Sept. 20 to Sept. 24, 2016
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