John R. Coleman, former Haverford College president and jack of all trades, dies at 95

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John R. Coleman was president of Haverford College from 1967 to 1977, and tried various jobs during a sabbatical, including prison guard, center, and sanitation worker. He wrote a book about his experiences.

It would be no stretch to call John R. Coleman a jack of all trades.

Mr. Coleman, who was indeed best known as Jack, did time as a trash hauler, sandwich maker, and ditch digger. Most remarkably, he did it all incognito during his term as president of Haverford College.

Mr. Coleman, 95, who turned his undercover work into a well-known book, Blue Collar Journal: A College President's Sabbatical, died late Tuesday at a Washington hospital after a long bout with Parkinson's disease, a son said Wednesday.

Mr. Coleman led Haverford from 1967 to 1977. His 1974 book chronicled his stints as a garbage collector in Maryland, kitchen help at the Union Oyster House in Boston, and a sewer line digger in Atlanta while on a four-month sabbatical from the then-all-male liberal arts college on the Main Line. He also worked on a pig farm in New Jersey (that didn't make the book) and an oil rig in Wyoming, among other gigs.

The book became the basis for a TV movie, The Secret Life of John Chapman, starring Ralph Waite, best known as the father on The Waltons.

"The movie did so well, it beat out Monday Night Football," recalled son Steve, who attended Haverford.

Mr. Coleman later went undercover as a prison inmate while working on prison-reform issues, and spent 10 days posing as a homeless man on the streets of Manhattan, inadvertently being captured by an NBC News crew filming a special on homelessness.

In 1986, he opened the Inn at Long Last in Chester, Vt., and ran it for 10 years. Then he operated a small weekly newspaper, the Black River Tribune, for the next decade. He also served as justice of the peace for the town, presiding over one of the first same-sex civil unions in the nation, according to his son.

"He was passionately interested in people and other ways of being in the world," said grandson William Coleman, a Haverford grad and art historian who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

But what many in the Haverford community remember him for is his fight to turn the school coed, a stand that cost him his job.

David Wertheimer was a senior at the time, serving as the student representative to Haverford's board of managers, and recalls the meeting when the board nixed the proposal.

"Jack said, 'I find the decision that we just made to deny half of the population the opportunity to experience a Haverford education morally indefensible, so I can no longer be the leader of this institution,' " recalled Wertheimer, who oversees programs on family stability and homelessness for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mr. Coleman walked out of the meeting. Later, Wertheimer joined him, and they shared a stiff scotch.

"That was one of the most valuable moments in my young student life," Wertheimer said. "He showed me standing by your principles in life sometimes comes at a great price."

Haverford went coed three years later.

Born in Copper Cliff, Ontario, Mr. Coleman, an economist and civil rights advocate, came to the United States to attend the University of Chicago, where he got his master's and doctorate degrees.

His first teaching job was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he became friends with George P. Shultz, secretary of state for President Ronald Reagan. The two were in the economics department together and coauthored a book, but they had very different politics.

"We argued," said Shultz, a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "Those were different days, when you could feel if your side lost, it's not a catastrophe because the other guy's all right."

Shultz said he most admired Mr. Coleman's "constructive spirit."

"He would never spend a lot of time yammering about the problem," Shultz said. "His instinct was, 'Well, what do we do about it?' "

Mr. Coleman spent the next decade at Carnegie Mellon University, where he led the economics department and served as dean of the division of humanities and social sciences. While there, he taught a course on the American economy that was broadcast on CBS. Before joining Haverford, he worked for two years at the Ford Foundation in New York City.

At Haverford, Mr. Coleman insisted that students call him Jack and ate regularly with them in the dining hall.

"He would convey to us that he shared many of our views about the world," recalled Bob Schwartz, retired executive director and cofounder of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, and a 1971 Haverford grad. "He made it very difficult for students to think of him as the administration we had to fight."

Mr. Coleman took a leadership role in opposing the Vietnam War, getting 81 other college presidents to sign an antiwar statement and sending it to President Richard M. Nixon. In May 1970, he helped organize 15 buses to take almost 700 students, faculty, staff, board members, and alumni to Washington to lobby and protest.

It was the divide between the ivory tower and the blue-collar world that drove him to take a sabbatical in 1973 and sample the other side, his son said. After that, Mr. Coleman never stopped trying new jobs, his son said.

"That was the last time we had a regular summer vacation," his son said.

Haverford remained important to Mr. Coleman throughout his life. He attended an alumni weekend there in May, when he was honored. He kept a painting of the college's duck pond over his bed, and a biography book of all of the students who attended the college while he was president on his bedroom shelf, his son said.

"Whenever we heard from anybody connected with Haverford, he'd get his book out," his son said.

His son said Mr. Coleman went public about his alcoholism in the mid-1980s during an interview on All Things Considered.

Steve Coleman said that even in his final weeks, his father talked about what he wanted to do next, most recently standing at their Quaker meeting and saying he was troubled by the lack of African Americans in the group.

"He really wanted to devote the rest of his life to rectifying the relationship between blacks and whites," he said.

In addition to his son and grandson, he is survived by son John (who also attended Haverford) and daughter Nancy, and six other grandchildren. Two children, Patty and Paul, died earlier. He was married twice; one former wife, Mary Norrington Irwin, died in 2011.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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