A Man Dedicated to the Education of Napa Valley Students - Harris Nussbaum
According to their website, If Given a Chance “provides financial, educational, emotional and moral support for Napa youth who have overcome tremendous challenges and who have demonstrated a commitment to continuing their education. These youth have experienced homelessness or extreme poverty, suffered abuse, neglect, faced daunting health problems or made poor choices and may be underprepared for entering either college or independent training. hey need financial support and emotional guidance in life skills.” Over the years, the program has enabled hundreds of students to attend college who otherwise might have never even considered it as an option. But it only works when an adult is able to help a young person see that their lives could be so much more than they ever considered, and provide them the guidance to turn things around.
Harris Nussbaum has probably done that more than any other teacher in Napa.
If you have attended an If Given a Chance celebration, you would have heard student after student say something like, “I didn’t think I would ever go to college and wasn’t even going to bother trying, but Mr. Nussbaum encouraged me. I wouldn’t be here without him.”
“Harris has his masters in psychology, but he has a PhD in ‘Big Heart,’” said Kent Gardella, a past president of the If Given a Chance program. “He can relate on a real human basis with just about any kid. He truly listens to them, and is able to hear ‘the rest of the story.’ Even though there’s a big age difference between him and the kids, they know they can trust him, and will take his advice. He’s a good, decent man.”
Nussbaum spent almost forty years with the Napa Valley Unified School District as a teacher, and still works to develop programs for high schools. By his estimate, Nussbaum has taught over 30,000 students, and most call him their favorite teacher. “Anytime I’m traveling, almost anywhere I go, I run into former students. It’s very gratifying,” said Nussbaum. He is a quiet, soft spoken man. When speaking with him, you can tell he is paying attention to what you are saying.
Nussbaum’s father had a football scholarship, but because of the depression, had to forgo college to help support his family. He was an entrepreneur who would go to a community and stand on a busy corner, looking for opportunities. He came to a Shiner’s convention in San Francisco, and declared, “There’s gold in them hills.” He moved his family to the Bay Area from Burlington, North Carolina.
In high school, Harris Nussbaum was president of his class, played offensive and defensive ends on the football team, and was on a slew of committees. After graduation, he became a student at UC Berkeley. He was married, the father of a special needs child, and worked four days a week for Standard Oil, and four days a week at Brewster’s. Johanna, his wife of forty years, ran across one of his yearbooks after they had been married a while, and starting flipping through it. “If I’d known you were this busy, I might not have married you,” she said with a smile.
He left college two units shy of graduation to support his family. “Even a ‘D’ and I would have been able to finish,” said Nussbaum. He took a correspondence course, finished and turned in his paperwork on the last day that it was possible to do so. He got credit for the course, and his diploma. “I was supposed to be in the class of ’57, but finished with the class of ’60,” he said.
His parents moved to Napa in 1955. His dad looked for retail space, and a business called “Usters” wanted him to buy them out. The space wasn’t big enough. The right spot turned out to be just around the corner. He wanted a name that rhymed with “Usters,” and in 1955, opened “Brewster’s.” He decided to move back to San Francisco, and sold the store to Harris and his brother-in-law, Larry Friedman.
Nussbaum continued with his education, and also dabbled in real estate. He had degrees in real estate, business administration and finance, and an MBA in marketing. He also had two more children, and his marriage to his first wife was falling apart. Increasingly, he was hearing an inner voice that told him he should get out of business and become a teacher. When he and his wife finally divorced, he sold his interest in Brewster’s to Friedman, and went to work for the Napa Valley Unified School district, and began teaching. “That’s what I was meant to do, and I loved it.” Two years later he had another degree, and after that, a masters in clinical psychology.
The list of awards and recognition Nussbaum received while teaching fills two single spaced, typed written pages. He’s been recognized by past governors and legislative bodies, and received a phone call from President Bush about one of his students. Kiwanis, Rotary and many other Napa nonprofits have, on numerous occasions, recognized his contributions as a teacher. He has served with the American Heart Association, Mental Health Association, California Association of Peer Programs, National Association of Peer Programs, California Teachers Association, California Retired Teachers Association, Kiwanis, Loyal Order of the Moose, and Leadership Napa Valley. He was on the founding board of Aldea, has developed numerous peer support programs, and has received several “Teacher of the Year” awards.
That doesn’t even count Nussbaum’s contributions to environmental efforts, which would require a list like that above.
Nussbaum is enjoying his retirement, although he still does volunteer work for causes he supports. Asked if he had a message for people, Nussbaum didn’t hesitate to answer. “Parents need to listen more, talk less,” he said. “It’s a totally different world than when we grew up. The stresses are so much more intense.” Nussbaum fully recognizes that parents have their own set of stressors and need support. “Families are struggling. This is an expensive place to live, and people are working several jobs to make ends meet.” Parenting skills have to be developed, and not everyone knows how to be a parent. “If you are going through difficult times, there are people you can talk to.” Nussbaum mentioned Aldea, Mentis, Cope Family Center, Puertas Abiertas and wellness centers at schools as starting places. Summing it all up, Nussbaum reflects that helping someone helps everyone. “To give is to receive,” he said. “The more students and parents help others, the better off they are.”
As a cancer survivor for the past five years, Nussbaum has been a model for the Queen of the Valley’s “Reach for the Stars” program. In August of 2018, he was diagnosed with two rare and serious medical conditions. He is determined to do what he can to overcome them. Knowing Nussbaum, it’s a safe bet that he will, and will be able to continue the things he loves – working with young people, and dancing.