[Marxism] John R. Coleman, Haverford President Who Explored Blue-Collar Life, Dies at 95
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Fri Sep 9 07:01:31 MDT 2016
NY Times, Sept. 9 2016
John R. Coleman, Haverford President Who Explored Blue-Collar Life, Dies
By WILLIAM GRIMES
John R. Coleman, a labor economist who as president of Haverford College
in Pennsylvania became a national folk hero when, on sabbatical leave,
he took a series of low-wage jobs and wrote about the experience in his
book “Blue-Collar Journal,” died on Tuesday in Washington. He was 95.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his grandson William
Mr. Coleman, known as Jack, became Haverford College’s first non-Quaker
leader when he was appointed president in 1967. In a period of student
unrest and political activism across the United States, he emerged as a
strong liberal voice, especially in his opposition to the Vietnam War.
In 1969 he enlisted 78 other college presidents to sign a statement
addressed to President Richard M. Nixon calling for an accelerated
timetable for withdrawal from the conflict.
Most significantly, he supported a student proposal that Haverford begin
accepting women as freshmen. The issue, which he saw as one of equal
rights and equal opportunity, was complicated by the proximity of Bryn
Mawr, a women’s college, which feared a drop in enrollment should
Haverford turn coed. When, after years of wrangling, the college’s board
of managers agreed to admit women only as transfer students, Mr. Coleman
While at Haverford, disturbed by the gulf between academic life and the
world of manual labor, he took time off and worked, incognito, as a farm
laborer, a ditch digger, a garbage man and a cook, keeping a diary. It
evolved into “Blue-Collar Journal: A College President’s Sabbatical.”
A kind of precursor to Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 book “Nickel and Dimed:
On (Not) Getting By in America,” “Blue-Collar Journal” was published in
1974 to enthusiastic reviews and made him a popular interview subject
for print and television journalists.
In his abbreviated career as a blue-collar worker, he concluded that
academia was not quite as artificial as he had thought and manual labor
not nearly as satisfying. Jobs, whether mental or physical, he decided,
had “frustrations, joys, pains and dreams in just about the same mixture.”
The book was made into a television movie, “The Secret Life of John
Chapman,” with Ralph Waite (John Walton Sr. on “The Waltons”) playing
Mr. Coleman, broadcast on CBS in 1976.
“I wanted to get away from the world of words and politics and parties —
the things a college president does,” he told The New York Times in
1973. “As a college president you begin to take yourself very seriously
and think you have power you don’t. You forget elementary things about
people. I wanted to relearn things I’d forgotten.”
John Royston Coleman was born on June 24, 1921, in Copper Cliff,
Ontario. His father, Richard, was a superintendent at a smelter operated
by the mining company Inco. His mother, the former Mary Lawson, was a
After earning an economics degree in 1943 from Victoria University, part
of the University of Toronto, he served with the Royal Canadian Navy
during World War II, attaining the rank of commander.
Soon after completing officers’ school, he married Mary Norrington
Irwin. The marriage ended in divorce, as did a second marriage. In
addition to his grandson William, he is survived by two sons, John and
Stephen; a daughter, Nancy Coleman; and six other grandchildren.
He pursued graduate studies in labor economics at the University of
Chicago, where he received a master’s degree in 1949, and a doctorate in
1950, writing a dissertation on collective bargaining.
After leaving Chicago, he taught economics and labor relations at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he became friends with
George P. Shultz, later secretary of state under President Ronald
Reagan. He and Mr. Shultz, an economist by training, collaborated on the
book “Labor Problems: Cases and Readings” (1953).
Mr. Coleman’s other books include “Goals and Strategy in Collective
Bargaining” (1951), written with Frederick H. Harbison, “The Changing
American Economy” (1967) and “Comparative Economic Systems: An Inquiry
In 1955 Mr. Coleman became chairman of the economics department at the
Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University), where
he later served as dean of the division of humanities and social
sciences. His gifts as a lecturer led to the job of host of “Money
Talks,” a five-part series on CBS in 1962 in which he explained such
basic concepts as gross national product and the Consumer Price Index.
Mr. Coleman led Haverford from 1967 to 1977. Credit Haverford College
A year later, for the CBS project “College of the Air,” he taught an
experimental course, “The American Economy,” that was carried on 241
affiliate stations and 54 educational channels.
In 1965 the Ford Foundation, for which he had done consulting work in
New Delhi during a sabbatical, hired him as a director of economic
development and administration. He was later its program officer for
At Haverford, Mr. Coleman pushed for changes that chimed with the spirit
of the times. He closed down the college football program — the college
bookstore today sells T-shirts with the slogan “Haverford Football:
Undefeated Since 1971” — and rescinded the rule barring long hair and
beards for intercollegiate athletes. In May 1970, he bused nearly 700
students, teachers, board members and alumni to Washington to protest
the American bombing campaign in Cambodia.
While traveling around the country raising money for the school, Mr.
Coleman collected want ads from local newspapers and, as part of his
secret plan, applied for work. “There’s a restlessness in me, a desire
to walk in other people’s shoes,” he told The Associated Press in 1987.
He dug ditches for sewer and water lines in Atlanta, picking up a rich
new vocabulary of curse words; hauled trash in College Park, Md.; and
made salads and sandwiches at the Union Oyster House in Boston, where
his talent won him an offer to become assistant chef.
His work schedule was compromised by his duties as chairman of the
Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia, which held monthly meetings,
requiring him to serve notice to his employers.
“To follow him down to the depth of his ditches and then up again to the
heights of conference rooms is to take an exhilarating roller-coaster
ride,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in a review of “Blue-Collar
Journal” for The Times. “To watch him as he gradually masters the art of
constructing a viable club sandwich, while at the same time serving up
strawberry shortcake and mixing cocktail sauce, is to experience a
vicarious thrill of accomplishment.”
After leaving Haverford, Mr. Coleman became president of the Edna
McConnell Clark Foundation, where he channeled his effort into prison
reform and combating the tropical parasitic disease schistosomiasis. His
idea of field research was to spend time undercover as an inmate or
guard in several prisons.
In 1986 he opened a bed-and-breakfast, the Inn at Long Last in Chester,
Vt., where he served as host and breakfast cook. He later ran a small
local weekly, The Black River Tribune, and served as a justice of the
peace, presiding over one of the first same-sex civil unions in Vermont
Mr. Coleman lost the battle but won the war at Haverford. In 1980, three
years after he left, the school became coed and awarded him an honorary
doctorate. Catherine Koshland, one of 39 women admitted to Haverford in
1969 as transfer students under a program he started, and who later
became the chairwoman of the college’s board of managers, told the
college website, “Although he was no longer the president, coeducation
is perhaps Jack’s most significant legacy.”
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