All but the last paragraph from an obituary by Michael Kinsman that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 3, 2007.
At age 4, Sara Thompson would sit down with one of her older siblings and ask, “Would you like me to tell you everything I know about butterflies?” Years later, her family would look back at times like that and understand why Sara went into education. “She was born to be a teacher, but we just didn’t realize it for a long time,” said her sister, Kathleen Thompson.
Sara, who was dean of mathematics, natural and health sciences at Palomar College in San Marcos, died on September 29th, 2007, of breast cancer at her home in Carlsbad. She was 53.
She had planned to be an artist and attended the Art Institute of Chicago. She later studied biology at San Diego State University, supporting herself by tending bar and selling used cars. She did cell-biology research at SDSU before she landed a part-time teaching position at Palomar in 1992.
“She was one of the most unselfish people I’ve ever met,” said Berta Cuaron, Palomar College’s assistant superintendent and vice president for instruction. “Everything she did was for the people in the classroom.”
Sara was described as quietly confident and self-contained. “There was no defensiveness, no competitiveness about her,” her sister said, and that helped her resolve disputes and deal with student and teacher problems, she added.
As a girl, she displayed a sharp talent for drawing and painting. She also worked with linoleum, woodcuts and clay. She excelled at every art project she tackled. “We all thought she was going to be an artist,” Kathleen Thompson said. “We never stopped to think she might want to do something else.”
She was born in Oklahoma City on Dec. 31, 1953, and graduated from high school at age 16. She attended the University of Oklahoma for two years before moving to Chicago. There she attended the Art Institute and became involved in the burgeoning feminist and gay rights movement, an interest she would maintain throughout her life. “She realized after a while of studying art, that she was doing it because she was good at it, not because it was her passion,” Kathleen Thompson said. So she moved to San Diego and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology at SDSU.
San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarman met her at that time and was impressed by her intellect. “She was one of the brightest people I have ever met,” Jarman said. “They have that ‘Ask Jeeves’ on the Internet, but all her friends used to say ‘Ask Sara.’ We could ask her anything. Her knowledge had great depth and background. It didn’t matter whether it was politics, science or something else, she always seemed to know the answer.”
She became a full-time Palomar faculty member in 1999, served as chairman of the life sciences department for three years, was vice president of the Academic Senate and became the dean of the math and natural and health sciences department in 2005. In August 2007, the college opened its new three-story, $30 million natural sciences building, whose development she had been supervising for several years.
Sara was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991, twice battling it into remission. The cancer reappeared in 2005. She continued in her job until December, 2006, when her health forced her to take a leave of absence.
To those who knew her, she was a great friend; to those who worked with her she was a great colleague. To her students, she was one great teacher. To all who crossed paths with her, she will be forever missed.