James Prescott Sutherland | Credit: Courtesy

Jim Sutherland: 1935-2019

James Prescott Sutherland of Santa Barbara died of heart failure in the presence of his four sons on December 14, 2019. Jim, as he liked to be called, was 84. A patriot, he often said that being born in the United States was akin to winning the lottery. It was perhaps fitting, then, that Jim, accompanied by a friend, was “road tripping” across the country he loved when he checked himself into an Indianapolis hospital where, after a brief illness, he passed away.

A former mayor of Appleton, Wisconsin, his childhood home, Jim moved with his family to the Santa Barbara area in 1983 to work in Westmont College’s admissions department. Jim, a professing Christian, was drawn to the “eternal dimension” of Westmont’s spiritual mission ​— ​bodily life on Earth, he liked to say, would last “but the blink of an eye.” Another pull was Santa Barbara itself. Jim had “fought like a tiger,” as he put it, to save Appleton’s historic and walkable downtown, and Santa Barbara had pulled off the same feat.

Before moving to Santa Barbara to take a job at Westmont College, Jim Sutherland was mayor of Appelton, Wisconsin.

Jim’s downtown favorites included events at the Arlington and Granada theaters, seafood on Stearns Wharf, and outdoor concerts and films in the courthouse’s Sunken Gardens. But he also made good use of surrounding areas, be it by showing up to his sons’ beach parties or biking with friends and family to Goleta Pier. On such rides, the most distinctive bike was Jim’s ​— ​a 1952 Schwinn Excelsior cruiser, its original blue paint a faded gray. Jim rode it from boyhood into old age.

Many noted Jim’s spirit of adventure. He took the kids to hike Cold Spring Trail, sled down Big Bear hillsides, explore the sand dunes near Guadalupe, and, in Los Padres National Forest, soak in a starlit tub of hot-springs water at Big Caliente. The outings sometimes included overnight camping, even if that required a bit of rule breaking.

Throughout his retirement, Jim remained a passionate fan of Westmont basketball. He attended innumerable games, home and away. In high school, he had played hoops himself, and he still enjoyed the drama of fierce competition ringfenced by respect for the rules of the game. Jim would often “break bread” at restaurants with players he had befriended.

Though Jim had been raised Catholic, he loved attending ​— ​and, among folks he met, promoting ​— ​evangelical services at Santa Barbara’s Calvary Chapel. Politics was another passion. Early in his career, Jim worked on Capitol Hill for a Republican congressman. In retirement, Jim frequented events at the Reagan Ranch Center, often bringing along young acquaintances. A lover of “substantive” conversations, Jim would affably buttonhole Washington bigwigs flown in to give talks and sign books. Jim also helped many conservative politicians with their campaigns in the Santa Barbara area and nationwide. In 2004, he traveled to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to help Republican John Thune, who narrowly won a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Jim also set up a voter-advisory service to help Santa Barbara conservatives slice through “obfuscating spin.” This involved annotating sample ballots with voting recommendations, which he then distributed to a network of appreciative friends and acquaintances. To better get his head around issues and candidates, Jim would attend city hearings and meet with, and grill, activists and politicians.

Jim’s love of conversation touched many ​— ​as one friend recently put it, Jim was always eager “to engage in a challenging conversation with others who had different views.” More could often be learned, Jim felt, chatting with someone, whatever his or her walk in life, than in school. He once had his sons skip a day of class so they could interact with workmen pouring a new driveway. His sons, and the workmen, loved the experience.

After losing a spirited 1980 election for a third term as Appleton’s mayor, Jim and his then-wife, Bronte, took their sons out of school to travel in an RV across America for a year of real-world education on the road. To better connect with others, Jim first had a CB radio installed. His sons were thrilled.

A patriot, he often said that being born in the United States was akin to winning the lottery.

After majoring in English at Georgetown University, where he also competed in tennis and swimming, Jim became a U.S. Marine lieutenant. That may be one reason he so lauded “not bellyaching, but moxie” ​— ​people with the character to do the right thing, and, if need be, to take a hit and still climb right back into the saddle. After his son Michael, an adventurer who designed and promoted hemp clothing, lost his life in China’s Nanpan River in 2007, it gave Jim some comfort that Michael had swum from relative safety into swift whitewater in a bid to save his girlfriend, who also perished.

Jim is survived by his sons Paul, Benjamin, Abraham, and Samuel, as well as by his granddaughters, 14-year-old Skye and one-year-old Flynn. The family will hold a memorial service this summer. 

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