An Ode to James Sefton

A man putting his hands on the head in front of a desk

Dr. James Sefton (1939-2018) showing off his new cardigan while preparing for class in his usual surroundings, which included new and old books, examinations, his original photography, photos from student field trips, and of course, old battle maps.

“Do things right, do things well.” These simple words echo in the memories of everybody fortunate enough to have known Dr. James Sefton, professor of history at the California State University, Northridge. This month, as the campus community settles into another fall semester, we also observe the one year anniversary of the passing of an extraordinary member of the Matador family, who left us on Oct. 4, 2018.

Born in San Anselmo, California, on July 29, 1939, James Edward Sefton and his mother moved many times before settling in Los Angeles. Sefton’s father passed away in 1944. Losing his father inspired him to become a father figure to thousands of students over the next five decades. He attended Hollywood High School, where he stood alongside his fellow students one afternoon to wave to President Dwight Eisenhower’s motorcade. He earned his Ph.D. at UCLA in 1965.

Later that fall, he joined the history department faculty at San Fernando Valley State College, which later became CSUN. Dr. Sefton, or “Doc,” as his students affectionately called him, brought the special affinity he developed for small town American life in his home town to Northridge. When he was not teaching, he could be found enjoying a sporting event at either CSUN or UCLA, taking or developing photographs, or gardening in his home, only two blocks away from this campus.

When he first arrived on campus, protests over the Vietnam War deeply divided both the student body and the faculty. He got to see the campus through better days, including the pinball machine fad of the 1980s and getting to help clean up the damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. He frequently contributed to The Sundial. Over the years, writers relied on him to offer perspectives on political, social, or campus-wide developments. In 2015, he celebrated 50 years of teaching. He promised early in his career not to retire until all the people who wanted him to had retired themselves. That list, he used to joke, became smaller each year. He never retired, although declining health prevented him from teaching in his last two years.

In the classroom, Doc’s wide range of expertise included the American Civil War and Reconstruction, American Constitutional History, and more recently, World War II. He expected so much from his students and graded them accordingly. He knew that each student could excel regardless of any tough circumstances that life threw their way. His critiques often seemed relentless, but taking a class of Doc’s was always a rewarding experience.

One morning before class, he ran into one of his students who was purchasing a bag of chips and a soda from a convenience store. “Is this your breakfast?” Doc asked. This led to another one of his famous traditions. Each semester, he treated all of his students to a “proper American breakfast” in the University Club. “Even if it’s the only proper breakfast you ever eat,” he said, “this is a skill I need to teach you.” When asked if he had any kids, Doc always answered with a smile, “Oh, about 11,000.”

Doc’s students will remember him for his attentiveness to detail and his careful and thorough way of conducting business. Those of us who knew him personally will remember his love for telling stories, often with a subtle and humorous twist to them, his love and dedication to the CSUN campus, and his generosity. I was lucky enough to take five of his classes. I knew him first as a professor and later as a friend. I learned so much from him both personally and professionally, and I will never forget him.

Article written by Adam Morgenstern, part-time history faculty at College of the Canyons and administrative assistant for the CSUN Jewish Studies Program.