James Cunningham Sargent

1916 – 2008


By Sarah Sargent


On Friday evening, January 11, James Cunningham Sargent departed this life at home, surrounded by his family.


Jim embodied all those qualities that have secured his rightful role as one of what Tom Brokaw identified as “The Greatest Generation Ever”. He was kind and generous to all, a consummate optimist, and a man of the highest integrity. These characteristics served him well during his life and distinguished career as an attorney specializing in Securities Law. Among other achievements, Jim was appointed by President Eisenhower as commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1956. During his tenure at the SEC, he traveled extensively throughout the country. In later life, he would declare with pride that he had spent at least one night in every state of the Union. After four years in Washington, Jim reluctantly stepped down to pursue a career as a corporate attorney in New York. With four young children, he had begun suffering from what he jokingly referred to as “mal-tuition.”


Jim was born on February 26, 1916 in New Haven, Connecticut, home to Sargent & Co, the family business founded by his great grandfather. He attended Hopkins Grammar School, Hamden Hall and Taft. A formative educational experience occurred when he was 10. That year, his mother took him and his brothers to Italy where she inadvertently enrolled them in a girls’ boarding school on the outskirts of Florence. Bucking a trend, he was the first Sargent not to attend Yale University. Instead, urged on by a family friend, he applied to and was accepted by the University of Virginia.

Jim’s first year at UVA was a social success but an academic disaster. Returning north for the summer, he received such a stern reproach from an uncle that he immediately headed back to Charlottesville to enroll in the summer session. By also taking correspondence classes during subsequent summers, Jim managed to make up for lost time and graduate in only five years with both B.A. and L.LB degrees while winning, with teammate Bill Putnam, the Lile Moot Court Competition, and being elected to the Order of the Coif.

Jim was in what he referred to as the law school’s “great class of 1940” with lifelong friends including Collins Seitz, later Chief Judge of the Third Circuit, and Mortimer M. Caplin who was Commissioner of Internal Revenue under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. At his graduation another classmate’s father, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, delivered his famous remonstrance at the Nazi invasion of Poland saying that Germany had “taken a dagger and plunged it into the back of its neighbor.” Upon graduation, 34 members of the Law School Class of 1940 joined the Army; 35 joined the Navy; 8 joined the Air Force; 1 each joined the Marine Corps, the Merchant Marines, the Coast Guard, and the American Field Service and 2 joined the War Department. Three members of the class died in the war.

A proud Wahoo, Jim didn’t drink a drop of alcohol while a student. He was the original “designated driver” ferrying around Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers in his Model T. He had entered into a pact with his mother to neither smoke nor drink while at college. On graduation, she presented him with a check for $1,000, a considerable sum at the time. He used it to travel throughout Europe accompanied by his lifelong friend, John Nettleton.

During World War II, Jim was stationed in New Guinea as an intelligence officer directing U.S. bomber air raid sorties on Japanese positions in the South Pacific, rising to the rank of captain in the U.S. Air Corps. Terribly myopic, Jim had memorized the eye chart in advance of his physical so as to be sure he’d be accepted into the armed forces. Before shipping out, he married his beloved Becca on January 23, 1943. Their marriage was exemplary; built on mutual respect, love and passion for one another and they enjoyed many happy years together. Becca, far from pining away for him during his wartime absence, joined the Waves and rose to the rank of ensign. After the war, the two settled in New York City where they lived for most of their married life. In 1997, they moved to Charlottesville to be closer to their two daughters and to the community they had grown so fond of during their many years’ association with the University. While at the SEC, Jim had returned to UVA to teach a weekly seminar on Securities Regulation Law at the law school, which he did gratis. He taught, among many others, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Law School Class of 1959. 

Jim was always a loyal alumnus; he served as president of the Law School Alumni Association, personally donated generously and was instrumental in raising funds from his fellow alumni. He served as president of the Law School Alumni Association from 1983 to 1985.

Jim’s professional life took him to Wall Street and Midtown Manhattan, where he was a founding partner of Parr, Doherty, Polk & Sargent which subsequently merged into Whitman & Ransom. His practice frequently took him to Washington where he characteristically appeared when the doors to the SEC first opened at 8:00 am (he having taken the 7:00 am shuttle from New York). In his prime, he routinely logged over 100,000 miles per year traveling throughout the United States, Canada and to Europe, and was proud of having been a passenger on the very first New York/Washington shuttle. In 2000, at the age of 85, he traveled to Bangladesh on behalf of a client and while there made a presentation before the Dakha stock exchange.


Jim was a frequent lecturer for the American Bar Association and the Practicing Law Institute where he annually participated on the panel “The SEC Speaks,” often bringing to bear his strong anti-regulatory views fostered in the Eisenhower administration. He was proud to have co-authored an article on the subject with his son, James Cunningham Sargent, Jr. that was published in the UVA Law Review. Chief Justice Rehnquist made reference to the article in his Blue Chip Stamps Opinion.


Jim enjoyed a wonderful zest for life. His motto, taught to him as a young boy by his Uncle Ziegler and passed onto all his children and grandchildren, was “take your good time with you.” Whether playing a spirited game of tennis, visiting the Taj Mahal in the hot season, or camping with his children in the pouring rain, the spirit of fun, adventure and good sportsmanship were of paramount importance. No one enjoyed a good joke like Jim. He once convinced a stewardess on a transatlantic flight to serve his daughter fake rubber eggs and had been known to short sheet a bed or two in his day. Assuming the role of his alter ego, “Smith Andrews Roberts”, formidable outdoorsman and adventurer, he would regale his young children and their cousins with tall tales about his exploits.


A dapper man, Jim was rarely seen without a tie. He was not afraid of bright color and bold pattern. His sartorial panache has been passed down to all five of his grandsons. Jim was very proud of his Scottish heritage and often wore the Cunningham kilt. He was a member of the St. Andrews Society. An avid dancer, he and Becca were members of the Waltz Society of New York for over 40 years. Other memberships include the Farmington Country Club, the Watch Hill Yacht Club, the New Haven Lawn Club and the University Club and Downtown Association of New York.


Last summer was the first one since he was a young boy that he was not able to visit his family camp in Maine, a place that he loved dearly. Murjimhejon has no electricity and with its “studied inconvenience” is not a hospitable place for someone on oxygen. Still, he longed to go there and spoke often about returning during the coming August. Throughout his last days, though weak and failing, he maintained his sense of humor and never once complained.


He leaves his devoted wife of 64 years, Rebecca Porteous Jackson Sargent; son, Stephen Denny Sargent of St. Petersburg, FL; daughter-in-law, Julie Graham Sargent of Tampa, FL; James Cunningham Sargent, Jr. and his wife, Paige Katherine Turner of West Chester, PA; daughter and son-in-law Felicity Sargent Blundon and Carroll Marbury Blundon of Somerset, Virginia and daughter, Sarah Blanchard Sargent of Charlottesville; his brother and sister-in-law, John Moffat Sargent and Janet Hutton Sargent of New Haven, CT; sister-in-law, Nancy Jackson Seiberling, of Iowa City, IA; first cousins, Roderick Morrison Engert of Washington, DC; Willard Cole Rappleye and his wife, Marita Rappleye of Aiken, SC; and Elizabeth Rappleye Cook of Remsen, NY; ten grandchildren; 13 nieces and nephews and many friends. In lieu of flowers the family requests that donations be made to the Hospice of the Piedmont or the University of Virginia Law School Foundation.