Remembering Len Sellers

Author: Thomas K. Pendergast
May 8, 2024
Professor Emeritus Leonard 'Len' Sellers
Photo Credit: via Constance Kirwin

Professor Emeritus Leonard 'Len' Sellers, 1944–2024

The San Francisco State University Journalism Department mourns the loss of Professor Emeritus Leonard “Len” L. Sellers, 79, who died on March 10, 2024 of pulmonary ailments.

Len joined the SF State Journalism faculty in 1975 after earning his Ph.D. from Stanford University. Sellers retired in 2001 as professor after helping carry the Journalism Department into the brand-new world of digital media by introducing its very first “multimedia" journalism class and laboratory.

Many of Len’s students stayed in touch with him after graduating. Some, like Shane Ginsberg, developed lifelong friendships.

Ginsberg joined Len at a digital consulting firm in the mid-1990s which evolved into Razorfish, specializing in building websites and developing content, including some of the first mobile applications.

“For those up to the challenge, it’s the most rewarding experience. He could find the overlooked and underestimated folks out there and give them a platform to do really amazing things," Ginsberg said. "He did that for me at San Francisco State. He did that for many of his students and he certainly did that in our professional world together. Nothing was ever cookie-cutter with Len.”

"He could find the overlooked and underestimated folks out there and give them a platform to do really amazing things."
Professor Emeritus Leonard 'Len' Sellers

Len was born on September 4, 1944 in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Connie L. Sellers and Mary Raineri-Sellers.   

His father, “Con,” was a decorated Korean War veteran and a published author, sometimes writing under pen names like “Robert Crane.” 

Born into a military family, Len and his brother Shannon were raised on U.S. Army bases, including Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Fort Lewis in Washington State, and the Camp Zama Army post in the Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan, until eventually his father was assigned to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. 

In 1962, Len graduated from Grants Pass High School in Grants Pass, Oregon. 

His father’s influence as an editor with Army newspapers was such that Len started a school newspaper in the sixth grade at Camp Zama in Japan. It lasted only one issue, because the school principal decided the stories “weren’t positive enough.” 

He was also a sports editor for his high school newspaper, The Scroll, and a reporter for his community college newspaper. 

Like his father, he earned extra money authoring erotic novels with titles such as “The Sexual Education of Mr. Stevens” and “Confessions of a Demon Lover.”

By the time he was 25, he told Prism Magazine he had written six of these novels, stating that he worked under contract requiring a $1,000 advance on each book plus 10% of the gross and used a different pseudonym for each book.

The Phoenix Fall 1969

Len entered the SF State Journalism program in 1968 and joined the Phoenix, one of two campus student newspapers at the time. 

When he became managing editor of the Phoenix in 1969, Len wrote one of the basic functions of the Phoenix was to be of service to students and “not a radical or administrative house organ.”

An exposé he co-wrote for the Phoenix revealed a steady climb in the overall campus GPA from 1964 to 1968, until more A’s were awarded than any other grade, with the ratio of A’s to C’s almost reversed.

The revelations called into question the validity of grades and the grading system, which potentially could have led to the university, then called San Francisco State College, losing its accreditation.  

So, he got an interview with the college president S.I. Hayakawa, who Len described as not being upset but instead inviting him to Hayakawa’s home to conduct “a long and interesting interview,” according to Len. 

Len graduated from SF State in 1970 with a B.A. degree in Journalism. 

He attended Stanford University from 1970 to 1975, earning both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Communication. 

In 1975, Len joined the faculty of the SF State Journalism Department, where he forged a fearsome reputation as a no-nonsense reporting instructor who set a high bar for his students. Under his rigorous approach, he told his students that to be successful journalists they must be disciplined, organized and willing to work hard to perfect their craft. 

He was known to be intensely skeptical, with a good dose of humor, telling his students things like “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” 

Current Journalism Department Chair and alumnus Jesse Garnier ('10) was a student of Len’s in the 1990s. Garnier said Len’s reputation and stinging critiques were enough to steer some students toward other instructors.

“Len was scary, in the best possible way,” Garnier said. “A group of us sought out exactly what Len was known for: Honest, direct, hard-to-hear feedback we knew made us better.

“In Reporting class, Len told us he would charge us one dollar per adjective in our stories. His goal wasn’t to fill a jar, he wanted us to learn to convey action and nuance through the richness of verbs; which he did.”

"A group of us sought out exactly what Len was known for: Honest, direct, hard-to-hear feedback we knew made us better."
Sellers? Or Satan?

By the 1990s, Len’s daunting reputation among many students resulted in other reporting instructors completely filling their classes, while he still had plenty of seats available. 

Those courageous enough to take Len's course despite his merciless façade could find another man behind all that bravado. 

“He was just a really complicated, smart, incredibly sensitive man,” said Professor Emeritus Erna R. Smith, SF State Journalism department chair from 1994 to 1999, and again from 2006 to 2008.” I don’t think a lot of people really got to see the sensitive side of him that much. He kind of hid that. Not from me. But he hid it.

“But when you got there with him, when he showed you what was on the inside, I have never met a person who was more loyal, more compassionate and more sensitive than he was to me,” she said.

Aware of his reputation among students but refusing to be intimidated by anyone, Smith said she decided to find out what he was really like for herself.

She found that they had some things in common, both of them having recently been in relationships that ended painfully. She was also feeling unsure about taking on the challenge of department chair. 

"In the beginning it was very complicated. I was sad. I had this big job. And he was always right there asking me how I was. Not how was the job but how was I. And I will never forget that about him,” Smith said.

“He was the one I talked to the most when my heart was broken. He said ‘well you’re having a 2 a.m. of the soul moment, when you’re up at 2 o’clock in the morning and your heart is just breaking.’ And he understood that.”

And Smith also noticed Len's students had positive things to say. 

“I’d heard such good things about him from a different array of students," Smith said. "He didn’t play favorites. He was fair in his harshness.

“I realized with Len that was his cover because inside that was a real sensitive guy. His feelings were easily hurt. I just think he acted like a bear to keep people kind of away because he was so easy to hurt.”

"I have never met a person who was more loyal, more compassionate and more sensitive than he was to me."
NewsPort logos and home pages

In the mid-1990s, Len became a co-founder of PlanetNews, the first iteration of the "Journalism Multimedia Laboratory" he created alongside television journalist and author Roland De Wolk.

The course was one of the very first in the country for what was at the time an emergent media. As a testament to how new it was, the university recognized it only as an “experimental” class, offering students general education credits  but no units toward a journalism degree.

Gary Barker, a former Editor-In-Chief with the Golden Gater campus newspaper in the spring of 1991, was the department’s computer network manager from 1994 to 1998. He explained the conception of this experiment in journalism.

“What if student reporters weren’t limited to using just one medium? What if all media converged?” Barker recalled. “Who would shape the conventions of, and stretch the boundaries of, journalism then? Where would the future industry leaders come from if all the nation’s J-Schools were fixated on paper instead of screens?”

They secured a grant from Apple to seed a small multimedia lab with Macintosh computers, then “they asked me to support the new course, run the new lab, and join them as co-teacher,” Barker said. “We had a shoestring budget. Aside from the three salaries, there was no state support.

“The mandate for students was using text/photos/illustrations/video/audio and interactivity to report real news that could interest a global audience far beyond just their immediate teachers and classmates.”

The PlanetNews name lasted one semester, and was subsequently changed to NewsPort for Fall 1996.

“The storytelling possibilities with new technology reinvigorated Len, as did the deeply curious and engaged go-getter students the course attracted,” Barker said.

Len used that course as a recruiting tool to identify students interested the emerging Internet, eventually bringing some aboard with Razorfish.

Ginsberg was one of those students.  

“We built many of the world’s largest websites. At the time we were considered maybe one of three or four companies on Earth that you would go to if you wanted to do commerce or other sorts of things on the Internet. So, we were those guys,” Ginsberg said. “Everything you do with Len is by definition intense, exciting; Len is challenging. And that’s in the best and the worst sense of the word, which means everything you do with Len becomes better.

“He could collect misfits and make them into something more. He was really into precision. He got to help precisely define the very thing he worked on, which was the Internet. He actually made a dent in the Internet; he helped shape some of it.”

"Everything you do with Len is by definition intense, exciting; Len is challenging."
Len Sellers sailing

Len was also an avid sailor who loved yacht racing as a member of the Corinthian Yacht Club.

John Mecklin, former editor for the SF Weekly newspaper and current editor for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said he met Len in the late 1990s.

“What I’ll remember about Len ... was his enormous gift for living joyfully,” Mecklin said. “I moved away from the Bay Area in 2005, but when I came back to visit, I would sometimes stay with Len on his houseboat in Sausalito. 

“We’d usually have dinner down the block at the Seafood Peddler Restaurant, looking over the Sausalito harbor. Len would charm the waitress or bartender ... and half the rest of the people in the dining room (he always appeared to know most of them), and we’d talk and eat and drink for a long time. Then we’d go to the boat, drink some more, and talk and laugh until way too late.”

Mecklin recalled a particular moment that underscored Len’s attitude about life at that point. 

“One morning after, Len and I walked from his houseboat down the pier to breakfast at the Taste of Rome, an Italian café next to the harbor where, again, everyone seemed to know and revere him. On this particular morning, he asked me, ‘You want to see when I died?’” He then called out to a guy behind the counter to put on the tape of the night Len died. 

“The guy dutifully found and played on a TV screen the video tape of the time when Len had a heart attack sitting on a stool at the counter ... keeled over backward, and was miraculously and quickly transported to the hospital by some [California Highway Patrol and Southern Marin Fire EMTs] who happened to be in the café. 

“They literally saved his life, after his heart stopped. I watched the tape, and Len explained in a captivating way how it all happened. His eyes were smiling. He was alive when he probably shouldn’t have been and ever so glad about it and brilliant and funny and the great, joyous Len Sellers I’m going to try to carry in my heart for the rest of my life.”

Len is survived by his partner of 30 years, Constance “Connie” Kirwin and his nephew Jason Sellers of Portland, Oregon.  

Thomas K. Pendergast ('97) is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He is an SF State Journalism alumnus and former student of Len's.