Stanley K. Sheinbaum’s family brought him home to Santa Barbara last month to the dramatic oceanfront bluff that sits just south of the Bird Refuge. It’s a majestic location, with a panoramic view of the Channel Islands and the silver-blue Pacific stretching seemingly infinitely beyond.
Stan turned 96 in June, and this bluff — in the Santa Barbara Cemetery — will now be his final home, in the family plot he and his wife, Betty, picked out years ago.
The two of them hadn’t lived full-time here for quite some time before his death, but there’d never been a question about where he’d return when this moment came.
Santa Barbara can seem a mercurial place in many ways — but it was never that to Stan and Betty. To them, we were not just an enchanted city but a point fixe, a metrical constant, an enchanted Polaris of rich friendships and honorable causes, a community deeply beloved and deeply loving, a locus of shared hopes and dreams. It was the place they always knew they’d come back to, and where two of their three children, Matt and Cass, in addition to several grandchildren, have transited back to, as well.
Sheinbaum wasn’t a native Santa Barbaran — nor even California-born. Instead, he was the classic American — a migrant — and, moreover, a migratory New Yorker born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the years between the two World Wars, his father had been a successful leather-goods manufacturer — until he wasn’t, because, like so many, he’d been crushed by the Great Depression.
Stan, as a result, had gone to work right out of high school in a garment factory, sewing women’s apparel, and then he worked for a time as a Broadway stagehand. He went on to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door, tried working as a department store clerk, and even worked as a bicycling grocery delivery boy. It was a life that held out limited promise.
During World War II, he’d become an army mapmaker stationed in Oregon, noncombatant service that nonetheless qualified him, like millions of others, for the GI Bill. Uncertain what to do with his life and hobbled by poor high school grades, he’d applied to and been turned down by 33 colleges and universities before Oklahoma State accepted him, only to suddenly discover, once back in school, that he now not only loved learning but also was good at it — so good, in fact, that Stanford admitted the 27-year-old as a sophomore transfer. Over the next eight years, Stanford awarded him an economics degree and Phi Beta Kappa key, saw him win a highly competitive Fulbright scholarship to the Sorbonne, and admitted him to its PhD program in economics, even then one of the nation’s best.
Stan sailed through Paris as well as his PhD program, and late in the Eisenhower years, he set off as a promising (but very late-starting) assistant professor, his doctoral thesis on international monetary policy half-complete, at Michigan State University (MSU). The pay was less than modest (as always for young academics), so in addition to teaching and thesis-writing, he’d signed on to a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) project that MSU was running in faraway South Vietnam. Stan was one of several junior administrators, and it wasn’t until his third year on the job that he took his first trip to Saigon. It was 1961, and an eloquent young Irish Catholic had just become president.
What Stan discovered in Saigon was completely unexpected — and deeply alarming. MSU was running a police “training program” not for USAID but the CIA, and the “enhanced interrogation techniques” being taught would prove just as controversial when used a half century later in Afghanistan and Iraq — except that no one in the 1960s seemed willing to admit to knowing anything about them.
For Stanley K. Sheinbaum — 41 years old, a veteran, proud American, and liberal anti-communist — that discovery became the first step in the complete remaking of his life, as he found his deepest beliefs about America and himself challenged in ways he’d never have imagined.
At first, he tried to look away from what he’d seen — especially when told by his academic bosses that it was he, not the CIA’s covert torture program, that needed to change. Back at Lansing, he soon decided to look for another job — one that he quickly found, of all places, here in Santa Barbara.
The job was as a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), by then a legendary think tank housed in a palatial but slightly down-at-the-heels, turn-of-the-century estate at the top of Eucalyptus Hill and headed by no less than the legendary Robert Maynard Hutchins. Hutchins had become dean of Yale Law School at 27 and the chancellor of the University of Chicago at 29 before founding the CSDI with a $12 million grant from the Ford Foundation when he retired from Chicago. He was, in mid-century America, one of the nation’s most respected, and influential, public intellectuals.
For Stanley, landing a job at the Hutchins Center brought more serendipity — it was “the beginning,” he told me years later, “of being reborn.”
In quick succession, he fell in love with the Hutchins Center, the fulfilling life of the public intellectual that it represented, Santa Barbara and its natural beauty, and, most important, a beautiful, young divorcée named Betty Warner Sperling, who entered his life at a crucial moment in his — and, as it turned out, the nation’s — life.
That once obscure little war in an equally remote Vietnam was no longer obscure or remote. The eloquent, young Irish Catholic who’d been elected president had, by then, been assassinated, and — over issues ranging from racial equality to war abroad to music, drugs, and sexual mores — America was starting to tear itself apart.
Stan and Betty married, and then with Betty’s four children they moved to a sprawling mission-style home just downhill from the San Ysidro Ranch. Betty’s father had founded Warner Bros. Studios, and in the heated years of McCarthy, Nixon, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, Betty had become a passionate liberal, a stalwart civil libertarian, and a committed supporter of a myriad of racial, social, and economic justice issues — and now she was viewed by many of her parents’ wealthy circle much as her heroine Eleanor Roosevelt had been deemed by her own erstwhile friends: “a traitor to her class.”
What followed was a life — and a marriage — fully lived by any measure or hope: Over the next half century, the Sheinbaums would become one of the most influential liberal couples in America. In Democratic politics, they would prove crucial early backers of Gene McCarthy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Teddy Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Stan would find time to chair the University of California’s Board of Regents, the ACLU of Southern California, the Los Angeles Police Commission (in the wake of the Rodney King riots, no less), and People for the American Way.
They bankrolled Ramparts, Mother Jones, The Nation, Dissent, Monthly Review, and New Perspectives Quarterly. Seymour Hersh broke the Mỹ Lai Massacre story thanks to their support, and Daniel Ellsberg was saved from prison by the defense committee they organized. Andreas Papandreou’s life was saved when the junta that had overthrown the Greek government threatened to execute him, and Stan and his friend John Kenneth Galbraith got former president Lyndon B. Johnson to promise that NATO would “kick the hell out of them” if Papandreou died. In the Middle East, Stan was good friends with the king and American-born queen of Jordan, and he personally established a working relationship with Yasser Arafat that in the early 1990s, for a brief but remarkable moment, almost led Israel and the Palestinians to peace.
In Santa Barbara over the years, the Sheinbaums quietly but indelibly helped remake the city by providing both the crucial early support for transformative candidates such as Gary Hart, Jack O’Connell, and Walter and Lois Capps and by underwriting the Santa Barbara Legal Defense Center, the Westside clinic, the first serious efforts to confront homelessness, La Casa de la Raza, the Environmental Defense Center, the city’s ACLU chapter, and the Santa Barbara News & Review (from which The Santa Barbara Independent was born) — to name just a few.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, more than 400 people who loved and admired Stanley and Betty gathered to mourn his passing and celebrate his life. Tributes from around the world were read from presidents and prime ministers, movie stars, singers and poets, peace activists and human-rights campaigners, environmental and native rights leaders, feminists, foundation directors, and me. I recounted how I’d met Stan at the Center and described how, in so many situations, I’d seen him provide not only needed money but even more needed courage and wisdom — and humor — to that endless struggle to “bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice,” to paraphrase Dr. King.
Donald Trump had been elected president only four days earlier, reminding me of another vindictive Republican president, Richard Nixon, who had put Sheinbaum on his notorious “enemies list” and ordered his phones tapped, mail opened, and taxes audited. Sheinbaum had outlasted Nixon, and even at 96, he would have known how to deal with the new president. He taught us how to battle for justice, and we all owe Stanley an irredeemable debt for giving us the tools to continue the fight.