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"I'm a hedonist," the professor says. "I'm doing what I enjoy doing."

Photo of James Shenton

James P. Shenton
Professor of History

About the Author

Eric Wakin '84 is enrolled in the doctoral program in American history at Columbia. He is the author of Anthropology Goes to War: Professional Ethics and Counterinsurgency in Thailand (University of Wisconsin/Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1992).

Where to Find It

Columbia College Today is a publication of the Columbia College Office of Alumni Affairs & Development. The Office of Alumni Affairs' web site is part of the Columbia College web site which can be found on the Schools & Departments and Index pages of ColumbiaWeb.

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Professor James P. Shenton '49:
History's Happy Warrior

A hero to students--and "Mr. Columbia" for many alumni--Jim Shenton began teaching in 1951 and never stopped

by Eric Wakin '84

From Columbia College Today

Jim Shenton never delivers canned lectures from old notes. He can't--he doesn't use notes. Memory and experience are enough. He stands at the lectern, usually in a white fisherman's sweater and loose pants, a shock of white hair highlighting his round face. His glasses slide down his nose, he peeks over them, then pushed them back. He paces back and forth, his voice rising and falling with dramatic inflection. He often punctuates a phrase by pounding the lectern. Then he'll pause, using the power of silence to command attention.

  Re-enacting the furious drama of Federal troops suppressing the Irish immigrants during the 1863 draft riots in New York City, he gives a merciless reading of the words of one soldier who came upon an armed rioter with his wife and child.

James P. Shenton
Extraordinary dedication: Shenton regularly takes on twice the normal teaching load. Photo: Arnold Browne.

  "First I shot the nit!" Professor Shenton thunders (POUND! ...pause). "Then I shot the bitch!" (POUND! ...pause). "Then I shot the bastard!" (POUND! ...pause). Students are awestruck.

James Patrick Shenton arrived at Columbia 50 years ago as a 21-year-old College freshman on the G.I. Bill. He has never left. After finishing his B.A. in three years, he stayed on to get his M.A. in 1950 and his Ph. D. in 1954. Along the way, he has become one of the University's most renowned historians and one of its most beloved teachers. Thousands have been touched by his intelligence, his moral passion, his liberality and generosity of spirit.

  Shenton isn't known for the scholarly monographs that are the bread-and-butter of many academic careers, although he has written and edited many books--including 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). He is a respected scholar of 19th- and 20th-century American history, with special expertise in the Civil War, Reconstruction, the history of radical movements, immigration, and World War II. Yet he has chosen to devote his career to education in its broadest sense, spreading the gospel of American History to children and young adults, high school and college students, doctoral candidates, fellow teachers and historians, the press and the general public.

  In the 1960's, Shenton taught a now-legendary 76-hour survey course on public television called The Rise of the American Nation. For many years he led NEH summer seminars at Columbia for college and secondary school teachers. Shenton has lived up to the noble ideal of the public scholar exemplified by such Columbia predecessors as Mark Van Doren, Dwight miner '26, Jacques Barzun '27 and Alan Nevins.

  Shenton has received many honors--the students' Mark Van Doren Award in 1971, the Great Teacher Award of the Society of Older Graduates in 1976, and the 1995 John Jay Award for distinguished College alumni. Last year, the American Historical Association and the Society for History Education awarded him the Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award. And at Commencement on May 15, Shenton became one of five recipients of Columbia's first Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching.

  He dismisses the tributes with a shrug. "I'm a hedonist. I'm doing what I enjoy  doing," he says. "I don't really think I need to be thanked for that."

  After a half-century at Columbia, Shenton will soon cut back on his Columbia responsibilities. Is this retirement? Not exactly. After a leave of absence next spring, he will return to teaching and advising students out of his cluttered office cum  classroom on the first floor of Fayerweather Hall. "Retirement is alien to me," he says. "It's more accurate to say that I am changing my relationship with Columbia. But I sure as hell am not going to retire. The term itself has always bothered me. There is an element of finality to it."

  Why should he retire? He is indefatigable. He has regularly taught four courses each semester and summer school (more than twice the normal load). Although he was originally hired to teach College students only, he believes that he has supervised more Ph.D. dissertations than anyone in the history department. He has directed the department's summer session since 1974. He has been a leader in Columbia's Double Discovery Program. He has advised the Manhattan School of Music on its academic programs since 1955, and has served on the board of education in Passaic, N.J., and as a trustee at an adult education school in Montclair, N.J. He is the only Columbia professor to have visited every single alumni club in the U.S. And then there are the famous walking tours of New York City and Civil War sites.

  "He has a sense of amazement about history that many professors lack," says Julia B. Lyon '96. "I remember in one class he lectured on the Dust Bowl. Everything was so vivid. Even though he wasn't there, it was as though he was. That's what he manages to get across to his students. He gets you enthralled."

  Shenton has influenced a number of his students to become historians, including some of America's leading scholars. Eric Foner '63, now DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, was a physics major until his junior year, when he took Shenton's year-long seminar on the Civil War and Reconstruction. "It was a great experience; he made me into a history major," Professor Foner remembers. "It probably determined that most of my career has been focused on that period."

  "He had the ability to draw people to him without becoming Mr. Chips--he was not an easy touch," added the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz '72, another protege.

  Sometimes Shenton guides by example. "He would say to me with this wistful look on his face, 'You know, I think I have finally gotten my library to where I wanted it,' recalls Harper's  magazine publisher John R. MacArthur '78. "The idea of this guy working on the perfect library has always charmed me. I'm still trying to do it myself."

Outside the classroom, Shenton's fame as an Epicurean rivals his academic reputation. And he has always been willing to entice others into his adventures. Friends and former students are bursting with stories of great dinners shared with the historian. (One former student described Shenton's seminars on immigration history as "informal and well catered.")

  Since he has no driver's license, he often needs an accomplice. "When I first met him," Eric Foner remembers, "he had this very fine MG. I asked him, 'Why do you have this sports car if you can't drive.' He said, 'Well, I never have had difficulty finding someone to drive me somewhere with this car.'"

  Foner got to drive his mentor a lot. He remembers accompanying Shenton on a trip to Chicago to discuss a textbook project with an editor. After the meeting, the editor told them to go out to dinner and submit the bill. Shenton decided that they should rent a car and drive to Milwaukee, about 100 miles away, to try a fantastic German restaurant he had heard about. After a sumptuous meal, Shenton billed the editor not only for the restaurant but also for the car rental--on the grounds that there really wasn't any decent place to eat in Chicago.

  George Frangos '62, a senior administrator with the State University of New York, first knew Shenton as his advisor. Returning one of Frangos's phone calls one day, Shenton instead reached the student's father, who invited him to dinner. Of course, Shenton accepted immediately. "I was mortified," Frangos remembers. "My professor was coming to my house. He showed up at one in the afternoon and stayed until midnight. He hit it off with my parents immediately, and they became close friends. I was totally dumfounded." Shenton affectionately tells the same story: "George was obviously agonized. His parents were desperately intent upon making me comfortable. I had a ball. Out of this beginning there developed a friendship that has lasted to the present." In one of his most intriguing escapades, Shenton and Frangos were once detained by Turkish authorities during a fact-finding mission for the U.N., which was examining the status of Turkey's Greek minority.

The man many think of as the quintessential professor of New York City has lived most of his life in New Jersey. He was born on St. Patrick's Day, 1925, his middle name is Patrick, and he's fond of Irish cable knit sweaters, but--to the astonishment of nearly everyone who learns this--Professor Shenton is not Irish. His mother's family is mainly Slovakian, and he even had a Russian Tatar great-grandfather. The closest place to Ireland in Shenton's background is western England, what he likes to call "the Celtic fringe," home to his father's ancestors.

  Jim Shenton grew up in urban, ethnically diverse, union-dominated communities in Passaic County, N.J., where he still lives with his mother, Lillian, soon to be 96 years old. "It was a world in which class was real, a world of immigrants and their work," he says. "Being poor was not unusual." Shenton does not describe himself as a radical, but his sympathy will always be with workers: "The one thing I still cannot do is cross a picket line," he says.

  His flair for the dramatic manifested itself early on. As a young man, he attended a Roman Catholic church in New Jersey run by what he describes as "left thinking" northern Italians. One day, as a ten-year-old Shenton performed in a church play--he was playing an elf--a priest interrupted and began pleading to the audience in Italian. Young Shenton could see that many in the audience were dismayed, but only after someone stood up and translated did he discover that the priest was exhorting the crowd to support the "Holy Italian war" against the Ethiopians. "I was horrified," he remembers. "My family were emphatically in favor of the Ethiopians. I got very upset, and I shouted out 'You guinea bastards!' and got off the stage. Then I realized what I had done and I was mortified. A nun swatted me. Afterwards my mother warned, 'In the future clean up your language before you make a statement.'"

  The oldest of four children, Shenton says his family always revolved around his mother. "I had no relationship at all with my father," he says, calling it a painful subject to discuss. Mrs. Shenton, a "formidable woman," instilled values that remain with him to this day. "She insisted there were principles of common decency and common justice, and we got them banged into us thoroughly," he says. When Professor Shenton joined the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, a relative asked his mother: "How the hell can Jim do this?" His mother shot back: "How the hell have you managed not to?"

  Shenton's early background helped him achieve an understanding of ethnic and class issues that transcends the patronizing liberal cliches often heard within the academy. "As a teacher he offered ethnically marginal, racially marginal, class-marginal people a refuge," says a former student, Venus Green '90 Ph.D., who is now a professor at CCNY.

James P. Shenton
America is his classroom: Through his books, lectures, television courses, and walking tours, Shenton has spread the gospel of American history to a vast and appreciative audience. Here, on a tour of Harper's Ferry, W. Va., conducted for Washington, D.C.-area alumni in 1989, he relives John Brown's fateful raid. Photo: Jacqueline Dutton.

  His appreciation of cultural diversity also comes alive in Shenton's walking tours. A familiar sight with his tweed cap, he frequently leads groups to Chinatown, Ellis Island, the Lower East Side and elsewhere. As he walks and talks, a real sense of immigrant life at the turn of the century emerges. Shenton describes work in a sweatshop, making his students understand what it meant to work for 12 to 14 hours a day just to survive. He conjures up what it meant for a family of eight, plus boarders, to live in a tiny tenement with no heat, running water, or electricity.

Like most American men of his generation, he willingly went to war when called in the 1940's. But as a committed pacifist, he refused to bear arms. Instead he served as a medic in the 106th EVAC Hospital and, over a three-year hitch he calls his "rendezvous with death," he witnessed some of the worst horrors of the European war: Utah Beach on D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and Buchenwald. "I remember someone saying to me once, `Jim what the hell happened to us?' And I said, 'Well, the young die too.'"

  One of the young who died was Shenton's closest friend in the Army, Joe O'Rourke. Shenton and O'Rourke were accompanying an infantry unit as it was taking German soldiers prisoner. The Americans came under fire, and medics were requested from two different directions. Shenton told O'Rourke to go one way while he went the other. O'Rourke was killed by an explosion from a mined wall.

  "The most awful part was that unwittingly I had been the author of it. I told him which direction to go" Shenton says. "When it happened, my immediate reaction was 'My God, it could have been me,' followed by an overwhelming sense of guilt.

  "That was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Somehow or other I had to understand the finality of his death. At the same time, I had to make a conscious effort to alleviate my feeling of guilt, something that I have never fully achieved," he remembers. "For the longest time it was a thing I couldn't talk about. Years later, I went to the cemetery in Luxembourg where he is buried. Then I finally cried."

  During the war, Shenton was at Buchenwald for less than 24 hours, but remembers it vividly. "It was as if suddenly the whole world had fallen down; we were looking at a human catastrophe so awesome that it defied understanding. When it was all over I realized that anything I would ever imagine as being possible had now become something I would have to accept as a possibility."

  Shenton returned from the war further convinced of the justness of nonviolence. In an interview given to Columbia's oral history collection, he recalled: "I was now utterly, totally convinced that nobody in this world should ever be prepared to sacrifice another person's life, unless they are absolutely sure." During the Vietnam War, Shenton flew to Sweden to counsel a former student who had gone AWOL after being told he was being reassigned to Vietnam. The student decided to desert, and Mr. Shenton helped him. "I made sure that when I left Sweden he was not going to be adrift, that he had the means to provide himself with what he needed."

James P. Shenton
"Mr. Columbia." Photo: Arnold Browne.

After his Army service, Shenton thought about becoming a priest, in spite of his mother's strenuous opposition. He went so far as to talk about it with a Jesuit who asked him "Do you believe in God?" Shenton says, "I thought about it and came to a rather straightforward conclusion--I didn't. I flirted with the idea of being utterly subversive and joining anyway, but then my sense of propriety--which was, in a certain measure, a result of my Catholic background--eliminated that as a possibility."

  And so Shenton went to college, choosing Columbia in part because a great uncle had been head of the University's sociology department. He was also influenced by a radio program he had heard in the late 30's in which Professor Irwin Edman '16 discussed Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. "I was absolutely enthralled. I got the idea that Columbia had the kind of faculty who could hold my interest."

  Shenton entered in 1946, commuted to campus, worked nights for a Frigidaire service company, excelled academically, and finished in three years. Extracurriculars were not for him. "A lot of the old-time college stuff, like 'grease the pole,' died with my generation," he comments. "Oliver Wendell Holmes, on the 20th anniversary of his Harvard graduation, made the observation, 'In our youth, it was out great good fortune to be touched by fire.' I came out of a generation that got touched by fire."

  The dedicated teachers he encountered as undergraduate--he mentions Henry Steele Commager, Lionel Trilling '25, Edman, and Barzun--left a profound imprint. Shenton also found a mentor in the history professor (and former College Dean) Harry Carman. Shenton warmly recalls his many trips upstate to the Carman farm in Saratoga County, where he got to spread manure in the rose garden and help build a large stone wall. The history faculty, among the nation's pre-eminent departments, also enjoyed a strong camaraderie, he says. Among the cherished colleagues he talks about are Richard Hofstadter, Nevins, Richard Morris, and former College Dean David Truman.

Over the years, Shenton has remained close to students and their concerns, as he did during the famous Spring '68 "bust," when he and other faculty members physically interposed themselves between charging police and radical students occupying campus buildings. During the struggle, the police beat him badly. Nonetheless, he returned the next day, his head bandaged and his arm in a sling. Television stations nationwide broadcast an interview with a tearful Shenton describing his experiences.

  "He really did love the place and he put himself in harm's way in a non-violent fashion to help keep Columbia together--he showed great courage," says Sean Wilentz '72. "Jim is the most extraordinarily dedicated teacher that I have ever known."

  Thinking about the 1960's today reminds Shenton "how tenuous the certitudes of life are. Even the most prestigious and powerful institutions are vulnerable." Then he reconsiders, "But I knew that before it all began." His response to the recent occupation of Hamilton Hall by protesters calling for the creation of an ethnic studies department reveals both empathy and nuance. "I understood what the effort was about," he says. "But, I have always thought ethnicity to be an extremely complex process. The protesters were using pigmentation to define ethnicity when in fact ethnicity transcends color."

  As he completes a half-century at Columbia, Professor Shenton is looking forward. He is planning a trip across Russia and China on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and then onward to Australia. But when the trip is over, "I'll come home," he says. And home for Shenton is Columbia. "I have enjoyed what I have been doing here and I think 99 percent of my enjoyment arose out of the people here. We are a pretty interesting lot. I hope I was as interesting as they were."

  "I suppose what I like most is the knowledge that --without knowing precisely how--I am having an impact on people," he says. "I found in teaching the challenge of interesting students in what I interests me. I also learned that as I instructed, I was being instructed. God knows, I can't think of much else that could have given me greater pleasure than teaching. For me, at least, teaching is in some ways an act of love."