Tribute to a 'Canyonite'

Like so many of his subjects, Orange County historian Jim Sleeper was the stuff of living legend.

By now you’ve probably read the moving tribute to the late Jim Sleeper by Chris Jepsen, assistant Orange County archivist and a close friend of the man who, I think it is safe to say, was and continues to be Orange County’s greatest historian.

Although I did not personally know Sleeper, having only corresponded with him by mail—and that was some years ago—I was one of many who attended his memorial service at Fairhaven Cemetery’s Waverly Chapel on Oct. 12.

Commuting from South County, I made sure to arrive a good 15 minutes before the service was to begin. Even so, the chapel’s adjacent parking lot already was filled. So I was directed, along with many others, to park along one of the nearby lanes.

By the time I neared the chapel, I could hear a piano -- the tinkling notes and cadences sounding very much like something from The Sting. I wasn't surprised. Everything I'd ever read by and about Jim Sleeper led me to believe that, among other qualities, he was one of the last great raconteurs. But I put those thoughts aside as I quickened my pace, for I didn't want to be late. 

I wasn't, but I'd arrived just minutes after the last of the programs had been distributed. Ah well! As it turned out, I found room in the last row of pews, sitting next to a lady who kindly loaned me hers. Hastily, I took out the notepad stowed in my purse and began jotting down the remarkable amount of information—a long list of names, plus a prodigious number of quotes—printed on the standard-sized program. 

“Seriously, history doesn’t have to be serious to be accurate.”

Little more than nine years ago, I’d accompanied Brian and Marian Norris—both active members of the Saddleback Area Historical Society—to a service at this same location for Joe Osterman, who unexpectedly passed away on May 11, 2003. I’d met Joe only briefly, at a Heritage Hill event earlier that year, but he seemed to know me and greeted me by name. Now we watched, along with all the others who packed the chapel, as a bearded gentleman clad mostly in dark brown approached the lectern. Someone—Marian, perhaps?—nudged me and whispered how unusual this was, for James Sleeper rarely participated in public oratory.

But participate he did, in—as I recall—a deep, rich drawl, all the while balancing a pipe in the corner of his mouth. I wish I could tell you what he said. But I only recall that it was marvelous, humorous and a fitting tribute to a man who, like himself, loved history, funny stories and the art of storytelling, although not necessarily always in that order.

“Local history doesn’t have to be believable to be true.”

As the pianist at the front of the chapel continued to play spirited but gradually subdued ragtime selections, I quickly scanned the program.

First were Jim’s dates: April 16, 1927 - Sept. 27, 2012

Then, a list of names:

Phil Brigandi, colleague

Dave Niederhaus, friend

Kris Hammar, niece

Karin Fogerty, niece

Kim Hammar, niece

Chris Jepsen, colleague

Yvette Hammar, sister

No sooner had I finished checking my spelling than the piano music slowed, then came to a stop. Moments later, former Orange County Archivist Phil Brigandi—a writer and historian in his own right—stepped to the lectern, introduced himself, and briefly told us about his own connections to Jim before introducing Dave Niederhaus.   

If you’ve already read Jepsen’s tribute, you know that, many years ago,  Sleeper purchased land in the remote west fork of Trabuco Canyon known as Holy Jim, in honor of a long-ago and rather blasphemous beekeeper named Jim Smith. Until about two years ago, when Jim and his wife, Nola, gave up their cabin, they were neighbors with a select number of adventurous folks, among them Niederhaus.

Dave gave a wonderful tribute, some of which is posted at the Trabuco and Holy Jim Canyons Improvement Association website. For those of us not from that area, he first defined the terms "canyonite" and "flatlander," the former most certainly fitting Jim Sleeper. Then he mentioned an entire string of names by which his friend and neighbor had been known, including Gentleman Jim Sleeper, Holy Jim Jr. and The Sage of Trabuco Canyon.

Next, Niederhaus told us how Jim constructed a beautiful stone cabin and started keeping a diary in January 1941. Dave said he’d been fortunate to see some of those diary pages—the ones bearing intricate, true-to-life drawings. And although most people thought of Jim as a writer, "many don't know he was a remarkable illustrator."

Self-reliance combined with teamwork being a primary feature of canyonites, Dave told us Sleeper also co-founded the volunteer Holy Jim Fire Department, and was "my mentor." (As is the case with many canyonites, Dave is a longtime member of that same organization.) He went on to speak about how sometimes, late at night, he'd notice a light coming from the upper portion of Jim’s cabin, where his friend would literally burn the midnight oil while polishing off an article, column or chapter of one of his books.

"He was courageous in confronting his illnesses," Dave concluded, adding—to the chuckles of many present—that Jim once told him, "When you tell someone where to go, make sure they enjoy the trip."


Although Jim and Nola did not have any children of their own, it soon became apparent their nieces Kris, Karin and Kim—daughters of his sister Yvette—were frequent and happy additions to their lives.

From Kris: He always smoked a pipe. And always wore brown. Or brown plaid! His bookshelves had lots of books. Poetry, literature, jokes. Plus treasures and trinkets from all the places he visited. In my mind [since he served as a forest ranger for about 10 years during fire season] Smokey Bear and my Uncle Jim were one and the same. He played ragtime music on an old phonograph and filled sandbags for winter rains [to prevent hillside runoff turning into mudslides and to protect rock walls near the adjacent creek from high water and rolling boulders.] And when he was lost in a Central American jungle and the coatimundis came out of the bush and surrounded him, he took a photo of himself—just in case they got him and he needed to be identified—then fed them Necco wafers. He was a lover of animals and a guardian of the Earth. He never broke 40 mph on the freeway!

From Karin: [after reading a wonderful passage from her uncle's Lost Without A Compass] He was shy in public, but always a rebel and a prankster. He quoted the adage that "it is better to remain silent and appear ignorant than open your mouth and remove all doubt."

From Kim: He visited us while we were living in Hawaii and helped us paint our house. My first memory, at the age of 2, is of him chasing me around with a paintbrush, threatening to paint my belly button! He had a wicked sense of humor. I miss him and his pipe smoking terribly.


Kim also read from one of her Uncle Jim's writings—in this case his very popular A Boys' Book of Bear Stories (Not For Boys): A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains. 

Here are a few lines from the Preface to Boys' Section:

"The first bear story I ever heard was in Sunday school, and it has stuck with me ever since. It was a curious one about a cross-eyed bear named Gladly . . . one your parents surely know, so it is better that they explain it to you personally. I know they will thank me and smile on you for asking them to tell you the story of Gladly, the cross-eyed bear."

After this bit of leg-pulling comes Chapter One of the Boys' Section, the complete contents consisting of the following: 

"All things considered, it is best not to mess around with a bear."

This is followed by a copious adult section containing enough Orange County bear stories to inspire a parallel universe version of Disney's Country Bear Jamboree. Plus almost 40 pages of footnotes after 154 pages of text.

As either Phil or Chris (or maybe both) remarked, the footnotes in a Jim Sleeper book were every bit as entertaining as the main section. So, for those who want to delve into his Bear book or Turn the Rascals Out!: The Life and Times of Orange County's Fighting Editor or any of Jim's other marvelous tale-tellings . . . be ready to flip back and forth between primary text and footnotes.

(Three Sleeper books do not feature footnotes, only because volumes I, II and III of Orange County Almanac of Historical Oddities are, essentially, chock-a-block with nothing but footnotes: lists, anecdotes and nifty nuggets of nuttiness regarding our area's tpast. I've tapped into Volume III for a previous El Toro & Before, and I'll be tapping into others in the future—but I digress, so let's get back to the service.) 


"My earliest memory involves me tagging along after him," began Yvette Hammar, his "kid" sister.

Tagging along to his Boy Scout events wasn't really an option. And, on one occasion, even young Jim himself was stymied from participation. The event was held some 200 miles away, at Big Bear, and Jim wanted to ride his bicycle there.

Of course, Jim and Yvette's parents said no.

But, Yvette continued, her brother was both stubborn and, the next morning, both he and his bicycle were missing. "Our dad took off after Jim in his 1940 Dodge, drove through Riverside, up the grade leading to Big Bear, where he found him pedaling away!"

After checking to make sure that his son was OK, Mr. Sleeper allowed him to complete his trip.

Yvette also recounted adventures they’d had on Catalina Island and visiting his favorite destinations of Mexico and Central and South America—"gumshoeing" pre-Columbian civilizations and other points of interest. She spoke of his winning a scholarship to Northwestern, of serving two years in the Army Air Corps, teaching English and journalism at Orange Coast College, and—at another teaching job—meeting a young fellow English instructor, Nola Fox, whom he married in 1965.

But, through everything, Yvette added, he was writing.

"I love you, James," she concluded. "You know I’ll always follow you."

"Anyone who writes history must own up to the fact that it boils down to a judicious combination of banditry, lard and well-turned transitional phrases."

The service now nearing its final moments, we were invited to come up, row by row, and look at the wonderful photos illustrating varioius aspects of Jim's life. As we did so, the pianist continued to play. Later, upon checking with Jim's widow, I learned she'd asked professional pianist Eleanor Baldwin, a friend from their days at the University of Michigan, to select and organize the music, much of it reflecting Jim's love of ragtime. "At some point, Eleanor played Scott Joplin's Solace," Nola added, and if you don't have a recording of that fine composition easily at hand, you can listen here

About a week before the service, I'd been invited to visit Holy Jim Canyon by one of Jim Sleeper's neighbors. We walked around the exterior of his fine cabin, which features a wonderful stone chimney and, yes, a garret-like upper story where the renowed historian-author sat typing, late into the night, many of his articles and manuscripts.

Another canyonite now owns the cabin. But on the front door, Jim's card and his alternate Tustin address are still firmly in place.   

Charles October 28, 2012 at 02:15 PM
Sort of on topic, Another good Orange County historical book that I am currently reading (and can be checked out from the OC Library) is "Halcyon days : a story of growth and social change in Orange County, California" by Arnold R. Beisser.
Janet Whitcomb October 30, 2012 at 03:14 AM
Thanks, Charles! I see there's a copy at the San Juan Capistrano library, so next time I'm over there I'll look it up.


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