Family, friends, colleagues, and generations of students mourn the loss and celebrate the legacy of husband, father, teacher, author, golfer, gourmand, musician, and sage James Cicero Durham. Jim was my English teacher when I was in high school and the first mentor to advise me when I became a teacher myself shortly after graduating from college. For me and many others, Jim’s voice and presence will live on every time we sit down to write or stand up to teach.
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Jim enjoyed a distinctive high school career and graduated from Carleton College in 1957. He would later earn his master’s degree from the University of California. After a brief period of service in the Army Reserve, Jim joined the faculty of the American School in Switzerland, where he taught English and served as director of public relations from 1960-62. Jim returned to the United States to pursue independent public relations projects and meet his muse, Pat.
After their marriage in 1963, Jim and Pat moved to Sheffield, Massachusetts, where he taught English at the Berkshire School. Known at Berkshire as “BullDurham” for his strength and prowess as a wrestling coach, Jim also supervised student publications and satisfied a lifelong love of the theater by directing the drama department. The Durhams’ sons, Matthew and Andrew, were born during this time.
In 1969, Jim was recruited by Cate School and moved his young family west to Carpinteria. Throughout 33 years of service on the Cate Mesa, Jim was a respected and beloved colleague, mentor, and friend. The depth of his service to education is extraordinary; in addition to teaching and coaching baseball and soccer — two sports he enjoyed immensely — Jim advised numerous student publications, chaired the English department, served as director of studies and secretary of the Cum Laude Society, directed musical theater, and was appointed to the Board of Trustees as Cate School’s first faculty advisory trustee. Many on the Cate Mesa credit Jim’s influence as one of the factors in his school’s rise to preeminence as one of the country’s best residential secondary schools.
Even while working, earning his advanced degree, and raising his family, Jim managed to find time to write two highly effective grammar and writing textbooks, To Write, Write: Writing and And Then Revise. Both books are still in use today, five years after declining health required Jim to retire from active teaching in 2002. For all his professional accomplishments, however, Jim leaves as his greatest legacy not so much academic success as a deep and true appreciation of language, music, life, and all it has to offer.
The following was written by our mutual friend Monique Parsons, class of ’84:
“Whenever people ask me about my experience at Cate, the first thing that comes to mind is Mr. Durham’s classroom. I see him in his tan corduroy jacket, hunched over, holding a paperback copy of something great — Othello, maybe, or Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. He’s whacking the book on the table, or tapping it hard with one finger. He’s got a sly grin on his face, his eyebrows are raised, and he’s looking around the table at us, waiting for us to speak. That sense of expectation — what will Mona have to say? Or Nan? Or Vinny? What is Shakespeare trying to say? — had us on the edge of our seats. Not that we always said something brilliant. But the sense in that classroom was somebody just might. The books we read with Mr. Durham were hard, but he peeled them back like onions. I never left that classroom without a better appreciation of a character, or a classmate, or a turn of phrase.
“Mr. Durham made me see that good writing is about sound and rhythm and the quiet places in between. As a writer, it’s something I think about every day. I picture him walking across the Mesa, moving to the rhythm of words.”
Jim is missed by so many: his brothers, Laird and Frank; sister, Anne; wife, Pat; sons, Matthew and Andrew; daughters-in-law, Victoria and Natalie; grandchildren, Cayman and Travis; and all who had the privilege to know him.
A memorial service will be held at the Katherine Thayer Cate Memorial Chapel at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 3. The Durham family requests no flowers, please; donations may be made in Jim’s name to Cate School and/or Hospice of Santa Barbara.