John Coleman: Garbage Collector, Cook, President

By Charlie Lynn, Staff Writer

John R. Coleman, Haverford College’s ninth president and a leader in the effort to make the college co-educational, died on September 6th. He was 95.

Coleman, who was a labor economist and the first non-Quaker to lead the college, served from 1967 to 1977. In an email to the student body, current Haverford President Kim Benston described Coleman as “one of the most beloved, influential, and storied figures in the College’s modern history.”

Born in Cooper Cliff, Ontario, Coleman received his bachelor degree in economics from the University of Toronto. He served in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II and completed his graduate work at the University of Chicago. Prior to arriving at Haverford, he taught in the economics departments of MIT and Carnegie Mellon University.

Coleman’s concern for the separation between academia and the wider world motivated his work throughout his academic career. He created a television course called The American Economy, which was shown nationally, and hosted a program on CBS entitled Money Talks. Perhaps most noteworthy was his sabbatical from presidency at Haverford, during which he worked as a garbage collector, ditch digger, and cook. After returning to Haverford, he published a well-received book, Blue Collar Journal: A College President’s Sabbatical, detailing his experiences.

At Haverford, he presided over an era of significant transformation. Most well-known was his support for making the college co-educational. Coleman advocacy on the issue was inspired by firm belief in equality. At the time, Coleman explained that the “unique opportunities of Haverford should be available to anyone of motivation, ability, and character.” His support ultimately led to his resignation when the Board of Managers decided to only admit women as transfer students in 1977.

It was only after his resignation, and the decision three years later to admit women as freshmen at the college, that Coleman’s significant role in the college’s history was fully acknowledged. He was awarded an honorary degree in 1980.

Coleman’s leadership also had other significant impacts on the college. He disbanded the football team and ended the college’s ban on students with beards or long hair from playing on college teams. Additionally, Coleman’s tenure saw the construction of the Dining Center and the North Dorms.  

Coleman helped lead the college through discussions regarding diversity and the Vietnam War, of which he was an active opponent. In May 1970, he organized for fifteen buses to bring members of the college community to Washington to protest the war.

After his tenure as president, Coleman continued his campaign for equality. He served as the president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. There, he focused on prison reform and even went undercover again, serving as both a guard and a prisoner on multiple occasions.

Kim Benston recalled in his email to the college community, “I had the privilege of enjoying his warm friendship in recent years. From our correspondence and conversations, I grew to understand well the intensity, curiosity, and generosity that so captivated his generation of Haverfordians.”

Coleman is survived by his children, John, Steve and Nancy and seven grandchildren. The memorial service was held on Sunday, Oct. 2.

From the print edition published on Oct. 5, 2016

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