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New Orleans Native Returns as Mellon Professor

October 8, 2007

Nick Marinello

“I’ve traded Paris for New Orleans, how crazy is that?” quips Tom Sancton, who resettled his family to the city in order to take up a year-long stint as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Tulane University.


The Tulane University campus welcomes journalist and musician Tom Sancton as Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities this year. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

There may be method to his madness, however. Sancton, a native New Orleanian, had lived in Paris for the last 15 years, most of them as bureau chief for Time magazine. When Hurricane Katrina slammed the city in 2005, however, he says he began to feel a need to return home.

“I started feeling the tug of my roots and wanted to do something for the city,” says Sancton, a journalist, author and jazz musician. “I had to find a way to come back and establish a beachhead here in New Orleans.”

Appropriately, the opportunity to teach at Tulane and return to the city coalesced around the 2006 publication of his memoir Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White, which recounts Sancton’s apprenticeship in jazz with the old-timers who play at Preservation Hall as well as his complex relationship with his own father.

The book was chosen as the centerpiece for Tulane’s first-year reading project that year, and Sancton came to town to deliver a lecture on the process of writing it.

According to Sancton, the experience led to a dialogue with Tulane administrators about how he could have a more substantial presence on campus, which, in turn, led to the offer to be this year’s Mellon professor.

In that capacity, Sancton teaches a colloquium in memoir writing to a small group of students, an experience he says is gratifying. “They are all motivated to write,” he says.

A clarinetist, Sancton has been performing traditional New Orleans jazz around town with his own band, the New Orleans Serenaders, who will be on a double bill with Dr. Michael White’s Original Liberty Jazz Band at a campus concert in Dixon Hall on Oct. 16.

In his 22 years as a writer, editor and foreign correspondent with Time, Sancton wrote more than 50 cover stories, including the acclaimed 1989 environmental feature, “Planet of the Year,” and a 1990 cover on Wynton Marsalis. Along with Song for My Fathers, Sancton has co-authored three books, Mikhail S. Gorbachev: An Intimate Biography, Death of a Princess: The Investigation, and Dear Jacques, Cher Bill, on Franco-American relations in the 1990s. His most recent book, a political thriller entitled The Armageddon Project, was published in January.


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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000