Thomas W. Payzant was a Williams College senior when quite by chance he first considered teaching as a profession.
“I happened to see a card on a bulletin board, asking for volunteers to come to the local high school,” he later recalled. “I was a history major, and they were looking for somebody to work with a social studies teacher.”
Volunteering several times a week was his first step in an education career that took him to New Orleans, Oregon, Oklahoma, California, and then back home to Boston, where as superintendent he led the school system for more than a decade, an uncommonly long tenure.
Widely respected in Massachusetts and across the country for his careful, methodical approach to improving schools wherever he worked, Dr. Payzant was 80 when he died in his Sandy, Utah, home Friday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
“There are current superintendents, school leaders, administrators, and teachers who worked under his leadership and countless students who are thriving due to his vision for public education,” Brenda Cassellius, the current superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, said in a statement.
Arriving in 1995, when Boston’s schools were considered to be in disarray, he “sought and succeeded to a healthy degree to transform an entire school system when many of his big-city counterparts would have been happy just to show progress in a few schools or special programs. That’s the Payzant legacy,” the Globe editorial board wrote when he stepped down at the end of June 2006.
Dr. Payzant also “made professional development for teachers a centerpiece of his administration,” the editorial board noted.
“Tom approached his job from a place of genuine love for his students, and Boston schools are better because of him,” the Boston Teachers Union tweeted after he died.
Several months before Dr. Payzant retired in 2006, the national monthly Governing magazine named him as one of eight public officials of the year. He was the only schools superintendent on the list.
Not one to rest on laurels, he was still working 12-hour days in those final months as Boston’s superintendent, tucking a typed daily schedule into a blazer pocket as he visited schools, slipping in unannounced, and pausing partway through the day to exercise on a gym elliptical machine — making intellectual use of that time by reading education policy articles. All that at age 64.
Soft-spoken, Dr. Payzant remained low-key whether fielding budget questions from the City Council, encouraging students to believe in themselves enough to attend college, or attending community meetings where his voice was typically the only one that wasn’t raised.
Though his demeanor and deft hand at politics helped persuade private foundations to pour about $100 million into school reform efforts, the sometimes incremental measure of success was a target of criticism by parents who were frustrated at the pace of change.
“Have I been too slow? Should I have pushed harder and jammed people more to produce more quickly? If you push people too hard, you can shut them down,” he said in a Globe interview a couple of weeks before stepping down. “It’s getting that balance right.”
During one seven-year period of his tenure, the percentage of Black fourth-graders who passed the math portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System examination increased from 35 percent to 60 percent, and on national assessments, city eighth-graders routinely outperformed their counterparts.
Still, studies by education organizations noted that an achievement gap persisted between the performances of white and Asian students, and those of Black and Latino students.
From beginning to end in Boston, his leadership won plaudits, however. He received the Massachusetts Superintendent of the Year award in 1999. And in 2006, after finishing as a runner-up for four years, Boston won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, the top urban school award in the nation, which brought $500,000 in scholarships for low-income high school seniors who improved their grades.
Even though Dr. Payzant was the person in charge, he saw improving education as a group effort that included the community.
“The biggest challenge anywhere is convincing every adult that they are more connected to every child and that child’s future than they think,” he told the Globe in July 1995, when he was a Boston superintendent finalist.
As a leader, he spoke of accomplishments in terms of his team, rather than himself, and he stressed the need for diversity.
“Part of leadership is challenging the status quo and I have tried to do that,” he told the Globe. “Folks who say you have to sacrifice to get a diverse team have not worked at it. I’ve done that in every place I have been.”
An only child, Thomas William Payzant was born in Boston on Nov. 29, 1940, and grew up in Quincy.
He was a first-grader when his father, Stuart Payzant, died. Stuart had run a real estate and insurance business, and Dr. Payzant’s mother, Ruth Evelyn Dennison, ran the insurance part of the business out of the family’s home afterward so she could be there for her son. She also taught evening classes.
“She never made much money, but she instilled in me the values that have helped make me a person who is committed to teaching and learning,” Dr. Payzant said in July 1993 during his confirmation hearing, when President Bill Clinton appointed him to be assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the US Education Department.
Dr. Payzant was a scholarship student when he attended Mount Hermon School, where at a student mixer he met Ellen Watson, who was the same age and had just begun attending Northfield School, the girls’ school across the river. (The two schools later merged.)
“He said, ‘You’re new, aren’t you?’ And I said yes, and he asked to walk me back to my dorm,” she recalled.
They married in June 1962, just after he graduated from Williams with a bachelor’s degree and she graduated from Connecticut College, where she studied child development and French.
Throughout Dr. Payzant’s career, she mixed teaching with extensive volunteer work, often with Planned Parenthood and the Girl Scouts.
Dr. Payzant graduated from Harvard with a master’s in teaching in 1962, and with a doctorate in education in 1968.
Between his master’s and doctorate he taught at Belmont High School and at a junior high school in Tacoma.
Beginning his administrative career in New Orleans, he was named superintendent of the Springfield, Pa., school district when he was 28, and subsequently served as superintendent in Eugene, Ore., Oklahoma City, and San Diego before serving in the Education Department. Dr. Payzant was a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education after stepping down in Boston.
“He valued diversity in every form and gave people tremendous opportunities,” his wife said. “If he couldn’t do something for somebody, he would try to find the appropriate agency or person who could.”
Maggie Slye, who formerly taught in Boston’s schools, tweeted that “Tom Payzant was a giant — it was a privilege to be a Boston teacher under his leadership.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. Payzant leaves a son, Scott Payzant of Minneapolis; two daughters, Gigi Payzant and Kristin Lovette, both of Sandy, Utah; five grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
A memorial service in Boston will be announced. The family will hold a Zoom memorial gathering on Aug. 9 at 4 p.m. EDT. The link will be posted on the website of Larkin funeral home in Utah.
A longtime runner who used to compete in 10K races while in Boston, Dr. Payzant sang in his church choir in Utah and in Boston sometimes danced with his wife in their South End living room, dusting off the Twist. “We’re ’50s rock ‘n’ roll,” he said in an October 2005 Globe interview, when he was still putting in 12-hour days as superintendent.
“I’m not quitting until midnight June 30,” he told teachers and staff then, “so there’s plenty more work we can get done together.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.