JIM SLEEPER, O. C. HISTORIAN, DIES
Published: Sept. 27, 2012 Updated: Sept. 28, 2012 8:06 a.m.
O.C. loses its first historian, Jim Sleeper
By GREG HARDESTY / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER TUSTIN –
If Jim Sleeper were around to write a headline for this story, he'd probably come up with something like "Chronicle of a Country-Loving Curmudgeon: The Life and Times of a Yarn-Spinning Old-Timer." The legendary third-generation Orange County native, who died early Thursday at his ranch-style home in Tustin at age 85 after months of ailing health, was as well known for his seminal articles and books on local history as he was for the lengthy and colorful titles he affixed to them. For more than six decades, works such as "A Boy's Book of Bear Stories (Not for Boys): A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains" made Sleeper the go-to source for all things historical in Orange County.
James Doren Sleeper, who grew up in Santa Ana and for more than 50 years owned a cabin in his beloved Holy Jim Canyon, was as much a prized resource for journalists in need of background information as he was an inspiration and model for a handful of scholars passionate about Orange County history. "If you had to pick the ultimate Orange Countian, in the best possible sense, he's probably it," said Chris Jepsen, 39, a local historian, assistant archivist at the Orange County Archives, and president of the Orange County Historical Society. "He was THE Orange County historian."
Sleeper's wife of 47 years, Nola, said her husband died at home at around 1:30 a.m. Thursday. Memorial services are scheduled for Oct. 12 at Waverley Chapel at Fairhaven Memorial Park and Mortuary in Santa Ana. The noon service is open to the public.
After bouts of esophageal cancer in 1999 and 2007, Sleeper remained in relatively good health until recently, relatives and longtime friends said. "He was just stubborn," said Nola Sleeper. Sleeper went on hospice care shortly after his birthday April 16, but as recently as last week was telling stories about Orange County's past. Jepsen, friends with Sleeper for about a decade, visited him Sept. 19. "We talked for about 45 minutes, and his sense of humor and storytelling prowess was still there," Jepsen said. "I told him I was planning to write a book about the history of Huntington Beach. His eyes popped open and he said, 'Oh, I got something for you on that.'"
Sleeper started keeping a diary in 1941, when he was 14 years old. His grandfather, the assessor of Orange County, played a key role in fostering his interest in then-rural Orange County and its history, Nola Sleeper said. Sleeper earned college degrees in classical literature and creative writing. In a story that appeared in Orange Coast Magazine in March 2010, he explained to Irvine-based author and freelance writer Scott Martelle how he fell into becoming a local historian. "I knew I wanted to be a writer," Sleeper told the magazine. "I started out wanting to be a short-story writer, but by the time I got out of college, all the short-story magazines were folding up. So I shifted to history." Sleeper would go on to do more than that. In addition to becoming an expert on topics ranging from the rise and fall of Santa Ana's Chinatown to the introduction of beautiful but destructive mustard grass in the county's foothills, Sleeper taught for a year at Orange Coast College in the 1950s and, about a decade later, at Fullerton High School, where he met his wife.
At heart, Nola Sleeper said, her husband was a newspaper man. While living full and part-time in Holy Jim Canyon, Sleeper published for about 15 years the Canyon Wren, chronicling stories of mountain lore for area residents. He also was a contributing writer to The Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times in the 1970s and '80s. Longtime Holy Jim resident and close friend David Niederhaus said Sleeper was instrumental in forming the Holy Jim Cabin Association and volunteer fire department in the mid-1940s. "His kindly personality, his unique sense of humor, and his ability to quietly lead and set an example will be long remembered by anyone who knew Jim," Niederhaus wrote Thursday in a message to Holy Jim cabin owners and fire department volunteers. In addition to serving as a ranger for the U.S. Forest Service and as a part-time firefighter and amateur geologist, Sleeper was staff historian for The Irvine Co. for a few years and also was a paid historian for the Mission Viejo Co./Santa Margarita Co./ Rancho Santa Margarita Co. Among his most well-known books are the three volumes of "Jim Sleeper's Orange County Almanac of Historical Oddities." The books, written in the 1970s and '80s, remain the acknowledged starting point for people interested in learning about Orange County's history, local historians say. Phil Brigandi, 53, former county archivist and as local historian, knew Sleeper for about 35 years. "As a historian, he wrote not only some of the best books, but also the most entertaining," Brigandi said. "He wrote like the person he was. He had a wry sense of humor and his own way of looking at the world."
In his final days, Sleeper enjoyed looking out the window of his home – just observing things, friends say. "To him, right up until the end, the world was a fascinating place," Brigandi said. "He just loved to watch the world go by."
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Watch a video interview with Jim Sleeper
VIDEO: Orange County historian Jim Sleeper dies
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