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Tom Laichas, UCLA Alumnus and History Teacher

  • By Sandy Siegel
  • Published Oct 1, 2003 8:00 AM

As a history major with three degrees in the subject, Tom Laichas knew Bunche Hall well: after all, the building houses UCLA's history department. But Laichas didn't have the same degree of familiarity with the building's namesake. "I knew [alumnus Ralph Bunche] had won the Nobel Prize, and I knew it was for his U.N. diplomacy," he says. "But I really didn't know anything else."

Not so anymore. Today Laichas is a walking Bunche encyclopedia, thanks to the UCLA-based National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS), which produces study materials for K-12 history education. UCLA Professor Emeritus Gary Nash, director of the center, commissioned Laichas to prepare a teaching unit on Bunche to coincide with this year's 100th anniversary of the distinguished alumnus' birth. Bunche's official papers, archived at Young Research Library, provided the foundation for the curriculum Laichas created. "The project has been an education for me," says the high school history teacher.

Laichas' newfound respect for Bunche is evident as he reels off details about the 20th-century diplomat, educator and civil rights activist. "One of the interesting things about Bunche is that he had his finger in a lot of different pies," says Laichas. "He was deeply involved in African-American political thought in the 1930s. He was involved in creating the United Nations in '46. He was instrumental in the armistice that ended the Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

"One of the challenges of this has been to learn enough about each of those so the curriculum could really introduce kids to these issues."

Introducing kids to issues is nothing new for Laichas, who's spent the last 20 years teaching 11th-grade American history and 12th-grade world history at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, Calif. He first worked with NCHS when it was founded in 1988, writing a study unit about early congressional debates on slavery in the 1790s. Over the years, he's also contributed pieces to encyclopedias and textbooks.

Laichas' interest in history dates back to his pre-Bruin days, when his father captivated him with tales of the Great Depression. "I got interested between his stories and the books I had read," says the native Angeleno. "Also, there was a teacher in high school who really turned me on to history."

These days Laichas sometimes finds himself back at Bunche Hall. "I kind of nod at the bust of Bunche whenever I pass by now," he says.