John Edward Sexton
2 December 2005
1 hour, 11 minutes, 56 seconds
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
John Edward Sexton (b. 1942) attended primary school at St. Francis De Sales in Belle Harbor, Queens and Brooklyn Preparatory High School. He continued his Jesuit education at Fordham College on a full scholarship and at Fordham University receiving his Master of Arts in Comparative Religion and a Ph. D. in the History of American Religion, encouraged by Rev. Timothy Healey, S.J. Sexton received his Juris Doctorate magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.
While at Fordham University, Sexton began and coached a debate team at St. Brendan’s Diocesan High School for girls in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, leading them to five national championships between 1960 and 1975. His fifteen years with the St. Brendan’s debaters represent a significant period in his life, for which he was named “Outstanding High School Debate Coach of the Last 50 Years” by Emory University.
Sexton taught religion at St. Francis College in Brooklyn from 1966–1975, where he also was Chair of the Religion Department from 1970. After Harvard, he clerked for U.S. Court of Appeals judges David Bazelon and Harold Leventhal from 1979–1980 and for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger from 1980–1981. Then he returned to academics, joining the faculty of New York University’s School of Law in 1981 and becoming its Dean in 1988. He was named the fifteenth President of New York University in 2001. Simultaneously he is Benjamin Butler Professor of Law at NYU, continuing to teach and foster connections with students and fellow faculty. At the time of this interview, Sexton was also Chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
German on his maternal side, Sexton personally identifies as Irish and attributes this to his father, also a lawyer named John Edward Sexton (1904–1960), the son of Brooklyn Democratic district leader James J. Sexton (1875–1947), an immigrant from County Sligo, Ireland. James Sexton was appointed President of the New York City Board of Taxes and Assessments in 1929 by Mayor James J. Walker.
Excerpt No. 1
Irish American IdentityDisc 1, 5:44–9:47
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
JS: It’s interesting, you know, my father was the O’Sexton side of the family. It became Sexton at some point but it was originally O’Sexton. And my mother is, or was, from the Humann, H-U-M-A-N-N, side of the family. My grandfather, my maternal grandfather’s name was Humann, my maternal grandmother’s name was Ludwig. So to an observer, they were clearly German, although they always insisted they were from Alsace-Lorraine, and were not German. And they fought, my maternal grandfather fought on the side of the United States in World War I, and of his six children, five including my two aunts and my three uncles, volunteered to fight in World War II. And I have almost no family on my father’s side. My father’s side evaporates. All the men die. I’ve outlived all the men on my father’s side of the family by ten years already. So my real family – and when I think of my family, I think of my mother’s family, and it’s a very close-knit family. And a few minutes ago when Ben Kingsbury said to you, “Be sure to find out about the pigeon-trainers,” I mean, as far as I know, pigeon racing and pigeon training is not big in Irish culture but it’s very big in Germanic culture. My uncles have thousands of pigeons which they race in races up to a thousand miles. And when I talk about my family, I talk about that group that Ben identified. But I have never considered myself anything but Irish.
MC: To what do you put that down to?
JS: And it’s quite interesting, I think first of all because my father died when I was relatively young. I’m – my uncles, my maternal uncles who worshiped him – I mean he was apparently a larger-than-life figure – say that I’m a kind of reincarnation of him, I think in my personality I’m Irish. I think – I’ve always had a deep love for things Irish. I think Catholicism is part of that. I think the Jesuit tradition I associate – you know when I think of the Jesuits I think of James Joyce. Now it’s ironic because I think of the Jesuits so positively, and Joyce presents them at some level so negatively. So there are all these contradictions in the way I experience my Irishness. But there’s utterly no doubt – now when people ask me my nationality I say, “Irish-American.” And it’s strange, but it’s been deeply, deeply there, and I think part of it, I mean, is all of the ways in which I’ve dealt with my father, who was my hero and who no doubt – I mean, I had a wonderful relationship with my mother, but – I no doubt idealized my relationship with my father. And his – he was overtly Irish, and was part of you know, Irish clubhouse politics in Brooklyn. I have a kind of mythological view of him. I’m not even sure how much of what I remember is factual.
Excerpt No. 2
It runs in the familyDisc 1, 34:46–36:08
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
JS: And I got a call from a man named Milton who came over to see me and he said, “You know, I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1933 and I came home in the teeth of the Depression and my mother said, ‘Go down to the club and see Mr. Sexton.’” And he described my grandfather and how my grandfather had given him a ten dollar case each week and then, you know, when my grandfather was made Tax Commissioner under Jimmy Walker – you know, probably held the tin box for Jimmy Walker – how he said to Milton, “You know, Milton, there are people out here in the ward. You know they, they uh, they may think their taxes are too high.” And he said, “You should go and interview them, and if you think they are right, you write me a letter.” And he took my arm, this man in his nineties, and he said, “Dean,” he said, “The Commissioner always looked very favorably on my letters. And I built the best tax certiorari process in the City of New York and became a wealthy man.” But never did my grandfather ask for anything. You know, it was all about the club – you know, like Plunkitt of Tammany Hall(1) – it was all about the club and – but this man Milton said, “Your grandfather saved my life.”
Excerpt No. 3
Getting started at St. Brendan’s High SchoolDisc 1, 41:41–42:53
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
JS: I got on the subway, it would have been the end of my Freshman year of college, maybe the beginning of the second semester of Freshman year, went out to my sister’s high school which was called St. Brendan’s, Irish enough, and rang the doorbell to the convent, asked to see the principal, and said, “I’d like to start a high school debating team here.” And I said, “I will – I promise you the girls will win the national championship and win scholarships to college. And they’ll see the 48 lower states ’cause I have this little van that I bought. We’re gonna drive around. And you’ll be proud of it.” And – I don’t know why – she said that she would call an assembly and see if anybody was interested. And of course when I was there – here I was, seventeen, I was the only male in the building so three hundred girls showed up that afternoon. And then I gave them books to read and they winnowed down to the kids – I did it for fifteen years, never once threw a kid off for lack of ability. You could be thrown off for lack of spirit: if you weren’t a team person, if you weren’t, you know, if you put yourself above the others; if you weren’t into the spirit of – we didn’t call it the debate team; we called it the “Society.”
Excerpt No. 4
Getting into Harvard Law SchoolDisc 1, 48:46–51:14
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
JS: So then finally in 1972, a group of friends – I’m blessed with these friends that go back over forty years and some of them are very famous today – one of them is a professor here now at NYU, Bob Schrum, and he’s probably the leading political rhetoritician of the last fifty years for progressive causes; and Bob and Larry Tribe and, uh, Lee Hebner, Mike Naler – they sat me down on the Georgetown campus – we all used to get together at Georgetown in July to coach debaters from all over, we were all debaters – and they sat me down – I could point out the bench today, ironically right across from Healey Hall – and they said, “You gotta go to law school. You can’t go on with St. Brendan’s forever.” It was 1972, I had just turned 30, and I applied to five law schools, four in New York and I applied to Harvard ’cause Larry was a young professor there. And, uh, I was turned down at all five schools, including NYU. And rightly so. I mean, here I had a 2.1 grade point average; I had a perfect LSAT score, or something close to it; I had this preposterous story about the girls; I had, uh, I was leaving a Ph. D. tenured position (there must have been some letter in a file about harassment or something, you know, why would you leave a tenured – you know?); and these things. It was the late seventies, no it wasn’t, it was 1972. So that crowd of friends went into Molly Geraghty – an Irish woman who changed my life, the Admissions Dean at Harvard – and they pled my case and recon, reconsideration. And Molly called me up and said, “You’ve been accepted on reconsideration.” It was the only law school that accepted me. And I said, “I can’t come.” And she said, “What do you mean, ‘You can’t come’?” And I said that because, if I’m gonna do Harvard – if I had gotten into one of the New York schools I coulda phased out my St. Brendan’s work – but I got kids to whom I’ve made a commitment, and they to me. And I said, “I can’t come for three years. I have to wait ’til the last of them graduates.” And she said, “I now believe everything you wrote about those girls.” And she said, “You’re the first person accepted for 1975.”
- Shawna Meechan [SM]
- Marion R. Casey [MC]
- John E. Sexton, 2 December 2005. Photo by Marion R. Casey.
- George Washington Plunkitt (1842–1924)