People of SU

Alumni Spotlight: Tom Roach, ‘71

Written by Tina Potterf

May 3, 2023

A photo in downtown Seattle featuring Tom Roach.

Image credit: Yosef Kalinko

A Q&A with this year’s Community Service Award recipient. 

Q. What drew you to Seattle University? 

“I was initially drawn to SU because our mom had graduated from SU in 1946 and my two older brothers, Mike and Pat, were already at SU when I arrived. What has continued to capture my interest in SU so that I served for 23 years on the Board of Regents and helped create an endowed scholarship in the name of our parents, Jack and Patricia Roach, is the Jesuit ethos. You can learn reading and writing and arithmetic at any university. At SU, there has always been an effort to help students recognize the truly important aspects of life—helping out, giving back, giving thanks.”

Q. Who was your favorite professor and/or a favorite class? 

“My favorite professor was Nick Damascus! He taught Art History and he was an absolute classic. He was wiry and fiery … always wore black shoes, black slacks, a black belt and a black long-sleeved shirt (rolled up to mid-forearm.) He would throw up his slides of the great art of the world on the screen and would get so excited about each work of art he would actually spit trying to get out what he wanted to say! Most of my siblings also took his class and we still talk about it. Nick Damascus is a big reason that I fell in love with art and the world and have now visited 74 countries—to actually see in-person the art and architecture he put up on the screen more than 50 years ago.”

Q. What are some of your fondest memories as an undergraduate?

“That’s easy! The people I met. I had an uncle who had a PhD in Education who said to me before I left for SU, ‘Don’t forget, 50% of college is the good times.’ I did my best to test his maxim so during my four years at SU I met many, many fun and interesting people from all over, many of whom I still keep in touch with. In addition, I worked for four years in the kitchen at Loyola Hall, which was then the Jesuit residence hall. There was something like 70 Jesuits at SU at the time, so I got to know every one of them. They were interesting, smart, regular guys when you got to know them outside the classroom setting.”

Q. Shifting gears, following SU where you earned a degree in Humanities, you ultimately became an immigration lawyer. Can you tell me about the path that led you to this work? And why immigration law specifically? 

“Between SU and law school at the University of San Francisco, I traveled in Europe on my own for a year, visiting 21 countries. After that I was hooked on seeing and understanding as much of the world writ large as possible. I eventually got a Master’s in International Affairs in New York City. When I married my wife of 41 years, Nancy Carrs, in 1981, we moved back to my hometown of Pasco, Wash. There I practiced immigration law for 40 years. My interest in immigration law was an effort at combining my interest in the world with a pursuit that would pay the bills. I was the only immigration lawyer in all of Eastern Washington for 20 years and did work for clients from something like 140 countries over my career.  It was very challenging and always interesting.”

Q. You are retired now from practicing but as you look back at your career, what are some of the most rewarding or most meaningful aspects of it? 

“Despite the fact I received some awards for various efforts during my years practicing, now that I have been retired for a few years and have had a chance to ruminate about my immigration law practice, the part that gives me the most satisfaction is fairly pedestrian, but, to me, very important: My greatest satisfaction over all those years and all those clients is that I treated every one of my clients over all those years with respect, honesty and dignity. Whether that person was a medical doctor from Germany, an engineer from Australia, a cook at a Chinese restaurant from Hong Kong or farm workers from old Mexico, I took their cases just as seriously and did the best I could for each of them. It seems dull, but it gives me great satisfaction to know that I did my best for every client no matter where they happened to fall on the socioeconomic ladder.”

Q. Tell me about your work helping the people of Ukraine. How did this come about and why was doing something important to you? 

“Since I follow international events quite closely, I have been very interested in the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Following the developments and the refugee situation that ensued after the February (2022) invasion, it just seemed to me that I was the right person in the right place at the right time to help out. So, I tried by phone and email to get something set up over on the Ukrainian border before I went there, but couldn’t get anyone to respond to me. So, I flew 10 time zones over there to the country of Moldova and, once there, after a few fits and starts, found ways I could help out. I was gone for six weeks. In addition to spending a fair amount of time putting vegetables in bags at a refugee center I also recognized a need for a summer school for 50 Ukrainian refugee kids and solicited funds from my family and friends to fund that. We raised $4,200 in 24 hours and have now sent almost $7,000 to the school. Why? I think it’s in the gospel of Luke somewhere. It says something to the effect: To those that much has been given, much is expected. My parents taught me that and that message was reinforced by the nuns at Saint Patrick grade school in Pasco and the Jesuits at Seattle University.”

Q. What does it mean to you to be honored with the Alumni Award for Community Service? 

“I am both flattered and embarrassed—flattered to be recognized for something I almost couldn’t not do, but more embarrassed because I know lotsa people who do lotsa good on a very regular basis in all sorts of ways and never get so much as a ‘thank you’ for their efforts. And they are not looking for any recognition.”

This is an extended version of a story that originally appeared in the spring edition of Seattle University Magazine, out now.