Low Plaza

American History Professor James Shenton Dies at 78

By Timothy P. Cross

James Patrick Shenton

James Patrick Shenton, CC'49, a noted scholar of American history who taught at Columbia for more than 50 years, died on Friday, July 25, in Paterson, N.J. Shenton had recently undergone heart surgery at St. Joseph's Hospital in Paterson. He was 78.

"Jim Shenton was a Columbia institution, and a Columbia legend, for half a century -- a devoted and charismatic teacher, a warm and caring mentor to generations of students, and a beloved colleague to those of us in the history department," said Provost Alan Brinkley. "His death closes an important and brilliant chapter in the University's history."

Shenton was a highly regarded historian of 19th- and 20th-century America, with special expertise in the Civil War and Reconstruction, the history of radical movements, ethnicity and immigration, and World War II. He was a mainstay of the College's Contemporary Civilization program and directed the history department's summer session for many years. He also led summer seminars sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities for college and secondary school teachers.

At Columbia, Shenton received virtually every award possible for a teacher and alumnus, including the Mark Van Doren Award (1971), the Great Teacher Award (1976), the John Jay Award for Distinguished Professional Achievement (1995), the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching (1996) and the Alexander Hamilton Medal (1999). In addition, the American Historical Association and the Society for History Education awarded him the Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award in 1995.

Born on March 17, 1925 in Passaic, N.J, Shenton was the oldest of four children. He attended public schools in New Jersey and served as a medic with the U.S. Army in the European theater during World War II. In 1946, Shenton arrived at Columbia College as a 21-year-old freshman on the G.I. Bill. After finishing his bachelor's degree in three years, he earned his M.A. in 1950 and his Ph. D. in 1954 from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He began teaching in the history department in 1951 and became a full professor in 1967.

A well-know supporter of liberal causes, Shenton participated in the March on Selma in 1965 and counseled draft resisters during the Vietnam War.

Shenton's published works include: "Robert John Walker: A Politician from Jackson to Lincoln" (1960), "An Historian's History of the United States" (1967), "The Melting Pot" (1973) and "Free Enterprise Forever" (1979). In the 1960s, he taught a 76-hour survey course on public television, entitled "The Rise of the American Nation."

A memorial service for Shenton will be held in St. Paul's Chapel on campus on Thursday, October 2, at 4:00 p.m. A reception will follow in the rotunda of Low Memorial Library. RSVP to Ken Catandella at kmc103@columbia.edu or 212-870-2288.

Published: Jul 31, 2003
Last modified: Sep 30, 2003

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