By Apsara Senaratne, Eden Ovadia
For students and staff alike, the recent passing of long-time campus presence Tommy Ultan-Thomas has left a significant void at Granada Hills Charter High School (GHC). Affectionately known by his students as Mr. U-T, he was a dynamic and adventurous teacher whose thoughtfulness and alternative style of thinking won the hearts of countless individuals in his twenty-five years of teaching.
Ultan-Thomas made his mark as a brilliant and creative teacher from the moment he joined the GHC staff in 1994. Students knew him not only by his quick wit and sharp tongue, but also by his utterly down-to-earth and caring nature. Even students who had not personally encountered Ultan-Thomas as a teacher recognized him by his signature cowboy hat, vest, and boots.
To the students of GHC, Ultan-Thomas was not simply a teacher, but a mentor and friend who truly cared for his students. He constantly pushed his students to attempt new endeavors and to be inquisitive in their efforts.
“He would definitely, at times, try to make learning humorous and to engage his students. Honestly, he was more of a friend than a teacher, and was definitely more than simply a biology teacher,” junior Annette Fishman said.
While sharing with the GHC community his constant passion for science and his desire to tell his students of new discoveries in the field, Ultan-Thomas would regale his students with stories of his time in the United States Navy, having served one tour in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. These stories were often humorous, sometimes not, but they all revealed a part of Ultan-Thomas to his students and illuminated the great pride that he had in serving his country.
Ultan-Thomas was always open with his students when speaking about his past experiences, regardless of the difficulties that these experiences revealed. However, rather than simply discussing his past experiences, Ultan-Thomas always had a way of making his stories into inspiring life lessons for his students. His triumph over the many struggles that he encountered throughout his life made many of his students recognize his strength and resilience.
“Mr. U-T was considerate and truly cared about his students. He gave me advice that I will always hold dear to my heart. He was one of a kind,” senior Denisse Alvarado said.
Though Ultan-Thomas was known for his “tough love” approach, he would always show his students how much he cared for them.
“He was actually genuine with his students, and it felt like he really cared, even though it seemed like he was being sarcastic sometimes,” senior Kaemin Tosasuk said.
GHC’s staff members were also strongly impacted by Ultan-Thomas. To many, he was not only a coworker, but a friend.
“He made me work harder, and I want to say he made me a better person. He made me a better teacher and a better person in that he pushed me and he also pushed himself. He was very demanding, and he had a high standard, and the respect was always mutual,” social science teacher Robin York said.
In addition to his career in teaching, Ultan-Thomas had many hobbies: his enthusiasm for gardening was unmatched, and the fresh produce that he grew by hand was his pride and the envy of those around him. He would tell his students of stories about his passion for activities such as hunting, fishing, reading, and frequenting the shooting range.
Ultan-Thomas was a man with a great deal of love for his family, friends, and students and endless fascination for the subjects he taught and the interests he harbored.
With Ultan-Thomas, there was never a dull moment: conversations with him were always enjoyable and interesting, and students would almost always leave class with new tidbits of information that they had never expected to learn. His passing was an unexpected and devastating loss, but even now he has continued to bring the GHC community together in exceptional ways. By sharing memories of him, we can keep his spirit alive in our minds and ensure that he will never be forgotten, nor will his Cowboy Tuesdays.