Nance Tovar, who graduated in 1976, was among four women who founded a private school in Oakland in 1989 for children from all socioeconomic and academic levels who would not otherwise be able to get an excellent education.

Starting with just $50 among them, the women collaborated to build the Northern Light School, which has earned an excellent reputation and attracted financial contributors from across the country.

Tovar recalls that the founders wanted to create a school where they “could take kids further academically and emotionally than we could within the traditional academic system. We wanted to be able to work on their emotional life” to improve their chances of succeeding in the world.

Tovar, 55, says she was 10 years old when she first thought that someday she would run a school for children who had no homes. “My father was my first Lasallian teacher, and then it was enriched by Saint Mary’s,” says Tovar. “I could never have done this alone.”

Tovar’s parents, Joe and Ruth, lived in the small eastern Contra Costa community of Oakley. As children, they were migrant farm workers.

Joe Tovar, who eventually worked his way up to a post in employee relations with Dow Chemical, “didn’t care how much money you make,” his daughter recalls. “It was how many people you touch. Saint Mary’s made that way alive for me and gave me the tools to go out and do the work I wanted to do.”

Tovar took her father’s words about the crucial value of education to heart. In addition to her bachelor’s degree in health, physical education and recreation, she received a master’s in early childhood education in 1978 and a master’s in counseling in 1983 — both from Saint Mary’s.

When Northern Light School opened, it had 12 students. Today, it has 156 students from preschool through eighth grade. At least two-thirds of the children have reduced tuition.

40 Years/One Night, a "Gaela" celebration recognizing the 40 Influential Women of Saint Mary's, will be held on Sat., Nov. 6 in the Soda Center. It begins with a cocktail reception, followed by dinner, a raffle and a silent auction. The keynote speaker will be Kristine Carlson, co-author of the Don't Sweat the Small Stuff series. Go to stmarys-ca.edu/womeninphil for tickets and more information.

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