Sea Cliff’s extensive volunteer community is one of the many things that make it special, and perhaps nobody understood that better than Isabel Sefton. For decades, she worked for a myriad of local organizations, including Mutual Concerns, the Beautifications Committee, the Landmarks Committee and several more.
Her unwavering passion for helping her community was a constant in her life until she died of natural causes on Nov. 4 in Hightstown, N.J. at the age of 101. She is survived by her three children, Julia, Ann and Tim, her five grandchildren, Diana, Emma, Natasha, Sebastian and Isabel, as well as several great-grandchildren.
Sefton was born Isabel Sullivan on Oct. 19, 1919 in Manhattan to Timothy and Mae Sullivan, soon becoming an elder sister to Adrienne Sullivan. After attending private school in Manhattan for much of her childhood, she attended Wells College to study sociology. In the years following her graduation, she worked in the personnel departments of Pan American Airlines and Harpers Bizarre.
Every summer, the Sullivans would rent summer homes in Connecticut. Timothy and May were part of a country club, through which Isabel made a group of friends. Her life changed one summer, when she met Robert Sefton, an architect, through some friends when the two were young adults. The two started dating and were married in 1954, and they stayed together until Robert’s death roughly 10 years ago.
The Seftons had three children — Julia in 1955, Ann in 1957 and Tim in 1959. Ann, now Ann Villegas, said the family came to Sea Cliff from Manhattan when she and her siblings were still children. Her parents rented a large house in the village called the Woodshed for a summer, and they decided to move to the village full-time after falling in love with the strong sense of community.
Shortly after settling into the village, Sefton and a friend opened the Wicker Basket, a gourmet food and crafts store on Sea Cliff Avenue, where Sherlock Homes Real Estate now resides. The business featured food and crafts made by members of the community who brought their products to the store to be sold. She was interested in other people’s livelihoods and talents, Villegas said, and she wanted to put them on display for the entire village to see.
However, most people who new Sefton said that her true impact on the community came from her many volunteer endeavors. Her mother loved the village’s parks, its Victorian architecture and its people, Villegas said, and she wanted to do all she could to improve all of them.
“She just was very community-oriented and she wanted to dive into different aspects of the town’s life,” Villegas said. “She liked helping people in different ways.”
Former Beautifications Committee president Peggy Costello said she met Sefton in the 1980s and the two became best friends. Costello said Sefton was a very creative and hardworking person who loved Sea Cliff. Sefton had become a huge part of who she is, Costello said, and she feels like she had known Sefton all her life.
“She was amazing in that she was openminded, she was always open to new ideas, new ways of doing things, she encouraged other people to do their best,” Costello said. “She was a beautiful person. If you can think of the person who was most influential in the good side of yourself, that would be Isabel Sefton for most of us.”
Barbara Sinenberg, another past Beautifications Committee president, said she met Sefton 28 years ago. She had a passion for taking younger people under her wing, Sinenberg said, teaching them how to be kind, helpful and involved in the community. She said Sefton was always part of park cleanups, helped decorate Sea Cliff Avenue with Christmas wreaths every year and volunteered at the committee’s luncheon every year too.
Sinenberg said she and Sefton shared a similar philosophy as to why volunteering in one’s community is important. “It makes you feel that your part of everything,” she said. “Your part of making things better and greater and I’m pretty sure that’s how she [felt].”
While she felt that making Sea Cliff a better place was something she would do without celebration, Sefton’s efforts were recognized in 1995 when she was awarded the White Cap by the Sea Cliff Civic Association. The annual award is given to a resident whose neighbors and peers agree is someone who works to make life in the village better for others. Robert had also been granted the award in 1974.
However, Sefton was not one to celebrate herself, Costello said. She said she was given the job of presenting Sefton with the award, and as she began to speak about the work her friend had done, Sefton jumped from her seat in the audience and shouted, “Stop! Save it for when I’m dead!”
Civic Association President Ann DiPietro said Sefton was as worthy of the White Cap as anyone has ever been. She and Sefton started a book club at the Sea Cliff Village Library roughly 25 years ago. She had wonderful insights, DiPietro said, for young mothers from someone who had gone through it already.
DiPietro said Sefton was a woman of great intelligence who had a grateful quality about her. She loved being a part of Sea Cliff and was an asset to every group she joined, DiPietro said, bringing insight and serenity wherever she went.
“There are many, many people who do many, many wonderful things for the village,” DiPietro said, “but there are always those few that go above and beyond . . . There are always those who have that special froth, and that was Isabel.”