Grove City, PA
A career in caring
“It’s just unbelievable the way your life unfolds,” says Jim Sewall. “As mine has unfolded, my favorite season is the Thanksgiving season. I love Thanksgiving, because I have been blessed more probably than anyone I know with blessings.”
This statement comes from a man who was born in 1925 and grew up during the Depression in a dysfunctional family; who had rheumatic fever, bronchitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis; and who has had seven major operations on his intestines since 1991.
His struggles started very early in life. Almost all families suffered during the Depression because of the economic conditions, but Jim’s family suffered perhaps more from internal conflicts.
Jim remembers his mother as a very intelligent woman who was locked into a miserable marriage with a man 17 years older than she.
“The tears almost come to my eyes when I think of Mother’s unfortunate life,” Jim said. “Her father was probably not able to show true love, so she was looking for a father figure. Therefore she got involved with men who were old enough to be her father. She wanted desperately a better life. I remember her making butter, collecting eggs, making buttermilk, and going the whole way from New Wilmington to New Castle to sell them.”
Jim’s father made life miserable for the whole family.
“I only remember my father when he was about 53, old and grouchy. He always complained that we were going to the poor house. Once I cried the whole night because I was sure that was going to happen. I can still see him, with that stone sledge, the sled, with horses and shovel, complaining every step of the way, going to work for the WPA, saying that Roosevelt was nothing but a Socialist. He was biting the hand that was feeding him.”
Jim had two sisters and one brother: Mary Lou, Betty, and Robert. Their negative family life had an unexpected positive effect on them. They emerged with a sense of caring, rather than with the bitterness they saw in their parents.
“There was no sibling rivalry. We went to the nth degree, if one got into trouble, not to tell our parents. It’s amazing. We are so different, but I think we have one thing in common. We are very caring. As different as we are, we always protected each other.”
Jim attended Zuver one-room school in the West Middlesex School District, then New Wilmington High School. After graduating in 1943, he attended Westminster College for two years. Then his father became ill, and he had to work on the farm for a year. After his father died, he finished his Bachelor’s degree at Grove City.
In 1949, Jim was drafted into the army.
“I had respiratory problems. They questioned my fitness because I’m very flat-footed. They asked me if it bothered me. I said no because I was so anxious to serve.”
Jim was actually 4-f because of a heart murmur he had developed when he had rheumatic fever, but he went into the army anyway.
“Life in the army is altogether different. I developed bronchitis and pneumonia, and was put into the infirmary in Fort Knox. At Christmas time the place was practically deserted. They kept giving me shots. The doctor came back and said, ‘Good Lord, who has been butchering you in the rump? I left orders that it was only supposed to be for so much time.’”
Jim was given a medical discharge less than a year after he was drafted.
“When I got out of the army, I wanted to get as far away from my mother as possible. So I put my name into a teaching agency in Philadelphia. They located a job for me to teach French and English in a little consolidated school in Clinton, New Jersey.”
In 1956, Jim’s caring nature brought him back to western Pennsylvania.
“My mother had retired and my older sister said I should come home because mother wasn’t adjusting to retirement. Whenever my older sister said something, I took it seriously.”
Through another teaching agency, Jim got a job in Ben Avon, PA, near Pittsburgh. He taught there until 1962.
“I missed New Jersey a great deal, and I thought I could do better than teaching three classes of French, two of Spanish, and the overflow of the English course. So I put my name in the Philadelphia agency again. I was offered a contract in Caldwell, New Jersey, for $8,400, and that was quite an advancement in salary.”
But before he decided to go there, he got a phone call late one Sunday evening that changed the direction of his life.
“It was the Westminster College language department chairman. He asked if I was interested in teaching at Westminster. I gasped. I never thought of teaching in college. I felt insecure. But anyway, I started teaching Spanish at Westminster in 1962 and I retired from there after 25 years.”
Jim never married, but that didn’t prevent him from having a very large family.
“I guess I was married to my career. My students are a part of my extended family. It’s unheard of for a bachelor to have such an extended family. That has been a source of great satisfaction. All of them together in one room, they would have very little in common except that they were very fond of Señor Sewall, and I of them. I get bogged down in sending so many birthday cards to ex-students.”
During his career at Westminster, Jim had one major disappointment.
“I had received a Cordell Howell fellowship for excellence in teaching to go to Bogota, Colombia. I was to teach French in a Catholic seminary, but I would have had to do it in Spanish. It was a wonderful opportunity. I went to the doctor and he had to give me a test for tuberculosis. It came back positive. So I had to call and cancel that.”
But as usual, in retrospect, Jim sees the positive side of that experience.
“Fortunately they had medication for tuberculousis at that time. A decade or so earlier it probably would have been curtains. If I had gone to Bogota and come down with tuberculosis, if they hadn’t caught it, I hate to think of it.”
In the early 1970s, one of Jim’s cousins wanted to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. She asked Jim if he could find the genealogical records she needed. For part of the search, he went to the Mercer County Historical Society.
“I found materials on the revolutionary war soldiers in the courthouse, and got my cousin into the DAR.”
That little favor turned out to have another major impact on his life.
“Viola Lawry was at the Historical Society then. She was assistant curator, she was janitor, she was everything to the society. She was such an inspiration. She had an overburden of work. I started researching for her, to help her out. I became a life member of the Historical Society in 1972.”
Since retiring from Westminster in 1987, Jim has spent countless hours at the Historical Society.
“I get as many as 200 hours a month of volunteer service here. Six days a week. This is my home away from home. I wear many hats here at the Society. Probably the most significant is genealogy. I guess I’m known all over the country as a local genealogist. I’ve helped many people trace their ancestry. But if I were going to give up one hat, it would be genealogy. I like to help people trace their ancestry, but to me it’s kind of sad when people become so passionate about tracing their ancestors. To me, genealogy is only useful for what you can learn from it.”
What Jim has learned from history will be surprising to those people who become enchanted with past eras and dream of living in them.
“From studying history, I’ve learned that there is no time I’d rather be alive than today.”
It isn’t just interest in history that keeps Jim active in the Historical Society; it’s the people he meets there. He lists many people who have been an inspiration to him – those who come in to make use of the resources as well as people associated with the Society. His list includes young people as well as older ones, such as a volunteer named Jesse Bestwick.
“This young lad has really added more to my life in the last several years. He has had more obstacles to overcome in his family life. Yet he is one of the most caring young people I have ever worked with.”
Hmm, a young man who came out of a difficult home life to become a caring, compassionate person. That sounds like a young man named Jim Sewall, doesn’t it? And perhaps, if Jesse continues to be caring and compassionate for another 60 years, he might begin to impact the number of people Jim has inspired, instructed, and influenced positively during his life.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008