EVERETT — More than 40 years later, James Abbott well remembers that shy foster kid who started late his sophomore year at Mariner High School and didn’t know a soul.
He was that kid.
Mariner changed his life, and now he wants to give others a boost.
Abbott, a Microsoft accountant, spearheaded a donation of $80,500 to Mariner through the Mukilteo Schools Foundation. Of this, $42,500 came from his pocket and $38,000 were matching employer funds from Microsoft. It led to the foundation’s James Abbott College in High School Fund at Mariner.
“Had it not been for that school and those teachers, I’d be working some job where I’m living paycheck-to-paycheck,” Abbott said. “A lot of people give money to their college. What about their high school? That’s where it all starts.”
Abbott graduated from Mariner in 1978. He turned 60 this year.
There are other places his money could go. He and his current wife have four grown children combined.
Abbott wanted Mariner to have a share of his success.
‘I got lucky’
Abbott, the oldest of five kids, was born in 1960 in Japan, his mother’s home country. His dad was a career Navy seaman stationed there from Washington.
He was 10 when the family moved to Snohomish, where he attended fifth through ninth grades. Abbott made good grades and was on the high school tennis team. But there were problems at home.
His dad was away at sea a lot and his mom, new to the United States way of life, struggled to take care of the five children. Abbott said his siblings were a rowdy bunch. The family moved to north Everett the summer before his sophomore year.
“My father was an alcoholic and my mom had a nervous breakdown,” he said. “One day a car pulls up and we all get in the car and, boom, they take us away. I remember my mom bawling. My dad was at sea. Everything we ever owned was gone.”
He was 14. His youngest brother, 6, and two other siblings were placed in foster homes.
Abbott went to a temporary home with another brother, Tom, a freshman.
“We ended up in a receiving home for 10 weeks. School has started and they still haven’t found us a permanent foster home. We weren’t allowed to leave. I mean, I wore the same clothes for 10 weeks, the same everything, even the underwear. Nothing was even washed,” Abbott said.
“They couldn’t find a high school for us to go to. They said. ‘It’s October, it’s just too late.’ All of a sudden Mariner pops up. Mariner said, ‘We can take them.’ At the time Mariner was this new progressive high school.”
Mariner was a sparkling showplace then. It opened in 1970 as the district’s first high school for students from south Everett and Mukilteo. Kamiak High School didn’t open until 1993.
“They found us a foster home in the Mukilteo School District area,” Abbott said. “A couple of teachers looked after me and gave me good advice.”
Gordon Rosier was his keyboarding teacher at Mariner. Rosier was stationed in Japan during his military service and knew about the culture.
Abbott stood out in the room with 90 students pecking at the orderly rows of Selectric typewriters.
“James was an outstanding student,” Rosier said. “He was neat as a pin.”
Abbott said Rosier encouraged his confidence.
“He told me I should run for ASB. He said, ‘You shouldn’t start at the bottom, you should run for president,’” Abbott said.
Abbott ran for treasurer and won. He was senior student body president.
“He got back into tennis and the girls loved him,” Rosier said.
Abbott said he had good foster parents who provided a stable normal family life.
“I got lucky,” he said.
But it wasn’t a given.
“As soon as I turned 18 I was out of the foster home and on my own,” he said. “I got this little $250 scholarship to go to Everett Community College.”
He worked at Boeing and when he got laid off he worked the counter at Alfy’s Pizza and then in the main office. He was able to support his youngest brother, who came to live with him while in high school.
It took Abbott more than 10 years to graduate from EvCC.
“A two-year college and it takes me over 10 years to graduate,” Abbott said. He took everything from Fortran programming language to disco tech dance, he said. He liked computers better than disco. He attended the Edmonds campus of Central Washington University and graduated with a degree in accounting in 1993 — 15 years after finishing up at Mariner.
“I got into technology and became a partner in a CPA firm,” he said. “I got a job at Microsoft in 2001. Here’s this kid who started out in foster care and the odds of succeeding at that time are very low.”
Abbott hadn’t been back inside Mariner until a year ago, when he spoke at the annual fundraiser for Mukilteo Schools Foundation.
“You walk the halls and all these memories come back,” he said. “Really, those were my happiest times. I had friends. I was popular, as they say. What more could you ask for as a kid? I was short, a cute little kind of Asian kid. You kind of stand out. Back then, there weren’t a lot of Asians.”
Abbott and Rosier, now retired and living in Arizona, stayed in touch.
“I was always really proud of him,” Rosier said.
Abbott was reunited with family members and reconciled with his parents, who stayed together.
His father died in 1998. Abbott spends much of his time in Florida, where he bought his mother, Chizue, a house.
These days at Microsoft, he works in the finance business intelligence group.
Ever the accountant, he knew a donation to Mariner would get almost double the bang with the match from Microsoft.
Mukilteo Schools Foundation, a nonprofit separate from Mukilteo School District, is dispersing the funds.
“James just came to us with a pretty good chunk of money,” said Ashleigh Cruze, foundation director. “We do not get private donors specifically trying to benefit the schools they went to. We’re hoping he can stand as an example for other people who want to pay it forward.”
About $10,000 went to the foundation, which offers classroom grants for all schools in the district and helps students get supplies, such as Chromebooks. Another $5,000 went to college scholarships for students at ACES High School, the district’s alternative school.
About $65,000 of Abbott’s gift is being used for College in High School classes, which enable students to get college credit in upper-level classes without leaving the high school campus.
This is different from Running Start, where students attend classes tuition-free at colleges.
“For students who want to stay on our campus, it’s a great opportunity to get ahead,” said Nate DuChesne, Mariner principal. “James wanted Mariner to have a decision on where this funding goes. My thought was, ‘What do students need to pay for out of their pocket that may be a barrier to them?’”
The school in recent years has expanded its offerings of eligible classes for college credit, which cost students $220 each.
For many students, the financial help could be critical. About 65% of Mariner students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches based on family income.
Mariner partners with Everett Community College, which offers two tuition waiver grants for qualifying students.
“But we have a lot of students who want to take more than that,” DuChesne said.
The course payments are available for all students, regardless of income.
“It gives a boost to a lot of students,” DuChesne said.
Abbott wants to help all kinds of students, perhaps even someone like that shy foster kid who wound up there in the fall of 1975.
“When I look back over my life I owe so much to Mariner,” Abbott said. “That’s the one that saved my life. I don’t feel like my life is complete until I repay Mariner.”