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If you like John Sexton's story, you might also like:
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John Sexton
John Sexton
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John Sexton Interview

Education & Law

June 3, 2005
New York City

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  John Sexton

Were there lawyers in your family, as you grew up?

John Sexton: My dad was a lawyer -- although he was a Court Street lawyer, and more a politician than a lawyer. And he died when I was young. So I never really knew him as a lawyer.

He had, by the time I was nine -- for all practical purposes -- given up his law practice because of a pretty serious problem with alcoholism that led to a series of degenerative diseases. So, although he was a lawyer, and he was my hero, so I knew that I wanted to be what that was, I really didn't know what it was -- until much later on.

What effect do you think that alcoholism and an early death of your father had on you?

John Sexton: Well, I think that my father's alcoholism is an important part of my personality. First, as a practical matter, I don't drink at all. And I've only had two drinks in my life, and both of them were over 40 years ago and more or less because it was a big thing among my friends to try to get me to drink. And I understand about myself that I have an alcoholic's personality. I say to the students at NYU that I am an alcoholic, because I tend not to do things in moderation. It's just that my alcoholism is ice cream. And I can put on many pounds very quickly, because I won't eat a spoonful, believe me -- or even a dish-ful. So I can feel my dad's personality in that.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

On the other hand, he managed to control his problem -- you know, one day at a time. He devoted the last five years of his life to working with Alcoholics Anonymous.

The first times that I saw Greenwich Village or NYU, he and I would drive over in the car -- and you have to remember, I was 10, 11, 12 -- very impressionable; adored him. I mean, he was a good and loving father, never put any limits on me. I mean, never put any limits on his understanding of what I could do. You know, he always expected me to be able to do anything I wanted to do -- as my mother did, which was a great gift. But I remember driving over in the car and sitting in Washington Square Park, and him talking about NYU, and this university. And then we would go down to the Bowery and we would pick up somebody, at random, and bring them out to the house. And for the last three or four years of his life, we never rented upstairs. There were four beds up there, and we would bring these people from the Bowery, and bathe them and feed them and they would live with us -- he called them "handymen," and he was essentially running an occupational therapy program. So that has inbred in me an understanding that we all fall. You know, when you see your hero fall -- but that rehabilitation is possible from the lowest depths; that even a person who -- I mean, it's a very traumatic thing to have your father burst into your fifth grade classroom in the middle of the day completely drunk, and you know, you're there with your classmates; or to find him in the gutter. You know, I'd have to search for him -- sometimes he'd be gone for weeks -- with my mother. But then to see the goodness in that person -- you know, it's a lesson that carries with you -- and, I think, breeds more of a willingness to search for the good in people.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Where did you grow up?

John Sexton: I grew up at the beach in Brooklyn. So this is an unadorned carefully honed Brooklyn accent. And notwithstanding the fact that my dad was a professional, and my mother had gone to college and graduate school -- she came from a very odd family background. There were six children. My grandparents -- my maternal grandparents ran a grocery store, and there were three girls and then three boys. And the three girls, for a reason that has never been explained to me, all went to college and graduate school and the three boys didn't. They stopped their education at or before high school graduation.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

John Sexton Interview Photo
Now, the war was a pivotal experience for them. My mother was the oldest of the six. All five of her siblings went off to the war. My aunts went off as nurses, and my uncles went off in the Navy. And my aunts returned from the war and married professional men and moved -- one to Ann Arbor and one to San Antonio. My uncles came back and they, with my mother, formed the nucleus of the family that I know. My father's family dies very young. So my real family is my maternal family.

And because during the war eggs and poultry were rationed, my grandparents had purchased some land from the Shinnecock in central Long Island to put a chicken farm out there. And my dad -- no doubt because he was in the Brooklyn political machine, and if you've read the great political book Plunkett of Tammany Hall, the first chapter talks about the difference between honest graft and dishonest graft, and Plunkett says the key to American politics is honest graft. You've got to get people to the club, and to do that you give them information.

Well, because my dad had information, probably, he said to my uncles: "Buy property around your parents' place out there." So, in all, the family bought 30 acres in central Long Island -- which they own to this day and it's a menagerie of animals, run by my uncles, who are the patriarchs today of the family. Everybody but my mother in this family lives into their 90s, and three digits, even. My mother died in her early 60s. It was 1980 when she died.

When you say to me where did I grow up? -- it was the beach in Brooklyn, which was our family house, but it was this place called Islip -- by what's now Islip airport -- where this 30 acres and 2,000 racing pigeons that my uncles breed, and a Vietnamese pig, and Chinese chickens that look like rabbits, and a horse that broke its back 18 years ago that one of my cousins wouldn't let die, so it looks like a camel. And this wonderful place of love out there is really the center of gravity of what I consider my family. And there are now four generations there, and there are 42 of us at Thanksgiving dinner. And each year when we gather -- it's really only my wife and I and my son that have graduated from college. Now some of my cousins in the next generation are beginning to go to college. But they kind of wonder what it is that I do. So it's a kind of mixed background.

Sounds like city and country.

John Sexton: Well, city -- but city at the beach. You know, we grew up in this two-family house, 40-foot lot, but we had ocean views from three sides of the house. You know, again, it was Plunkett of Tammany Hall -- my dad probably got information that a bridge was going to be built over to this peninsula, and he bought some property right there, and we had this two-family house. And the income from that second unit really saved us.

In the '50s, when I was in high school, we really were very poor, because of my dad's alcoholism and his illnesses -- which weren't insured. And my mother started teaching elementary school, and my sister worked in a butcher store -- more or less to get the income, and the entrails. We ate a lot of the leftovers of animals. I don't recognize liver as a delicacy. It was kind of the high end of what we got in the meat department -- except when my father won at the track. Then we would get steak.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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