Campus mourns loss of retired English professor Ed Coleman

The Ed Coleman, retired UO English professor, holding a family portrait.

English Professor Emeritus Edwin “Ed” Coleman was a beacon to generations of students, musicians and activists, and his passing Jan. 20 dimmed the lives of friends and colleagues across the UO campus.

A public celebration of life will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, at Willamette Christian Center, 2500 W. 18th Ave. But members of the university community who had the good fortune to know Coleman already are sharing memories of a man who spent most of his 84 years pursing knowledge, justice and beauty.

“I always thought of Ed as the university's unofficial chaplain because he was such an unfailingly generous, sympathetic and thoughtful counselor and friend to all students,” said George Wickes, a colleague and professor emeritus.

Coleman’s passing was keenly felt in the English department and folklore and ethnic studies programs, where he was an inspiring leader for more than three decades before his retirement in 1998. He continued teaching for a number of years after retirement and widened his already extensive service to the Eugene community, touching the lives of countless students, colleagues and fellow Eugenians in music and progressive activism with his wisdom, warm personality, integrity and wealth of stories.

He told his English department colleagues that they shouldn't take the idea of his retiring seriously, and indeed he used his new-found freedom to pursue his interests in music, photography, writing and the advocacy of social causes.

Over the years since his arrival in Eugene, Coleman witnessed extraordinary changes in literary studies, in campus life and in the country as a whole. He was always an outspoken voice for civil rights, engaging others in discussions of race and equity and providing an open ear to all sides of the debate.

"As my stalwart backer in hiring a more diverse faculty when I was the department head in the mid-1990s, Ed was a welcomer and supporter for four new faculty of color in 1998,” said Molly Westling, professor emerita of English and environmental studies. “He was a friend on the protest lines against the Iraq War during the 2004-05 academic years and always my standard for wisdom and strength. What a friend and colleague!"

Born in 1932 in El Dorado, Arkansas, Coleman spent his early years in that Jim Crow Southern world before his family moved to Alameda, California, during World War II. He had begun playing the violin at age 6 in Arkansas and expanded his musical education in high school, where he was one of only 150 black students out of 2,000.

“If you were a black boy in the projects and you played violin," Coleman said, "you were considered a sissy, so every day when I got off the bus after school, I’d get chased and pinned down, but nobody ever tried to damage my violin."

Interested in theater from a young age, Coleman wasn't given roles because of his race. Black students "weren’t necessarily treated badly, we just weren’t treated at all,” Coleman said. After serving in the Air Force Reserves and graduating from what was then San Francisco State College, he began teaching theater, continuing at Chico State University while pursuing a musical career as well.

In 1966 he moved to Eugene with his wife, Charmaine, also a musician. He completed his doctorate in theater at the UO, writing a dissertation on Langston Hughes' plays. He joined the English department as an assistant professor in 1971.

“Ed warmly welcomed me to the university on my first day on campus,” said Sharon Sherman, professor emerita of folklore and English. “We became immediate friends and he became my mentor as well as a mentor for many students who needed help in navigating their way through working on their degrees.”

Coleman observed that some faculty members were somewhat resistant to the teaching of African-American literature at first, but many other colleagues firmly supported the field. African-American literature courses rapidly became a standard part of the curriculum, and he was instrumental in leading the way toward more diverse literature.

"One could hardly live in Eugene without knowing him or knowing who he was," Sherman said. "One of the best persons to rise to the challenges of being a black man in a white world. Ed took on issues of race, diversity and civil rights for all. He had great character, always making the ethical decision. He was able to teach us so much about being good people."

Music informed much of Coleman's work, and as a professional musician he toured throughout the United States and Central America. As a bass player he performed with Cal Tjader; Peter, Paul and Mary; Ella Fitzgerald; the Kingston Trio; Mel Tormé; Maya Angelou; Bob Hope; and many others.

He regularly used music in the classroom, and students and colleagues passing by his classes might hear recordings of jazz, blues or gospel music, or hear more than 100 students engaged in "call and response." Music helped him integrate the worlds of scholarship and community. Along with his wife and two sons, he frequently performed around the city.

Coleman said, "In all of history, in all of literature, what we are seeking is an understanding of the human spirit, the human condition." His advice to new instructors and students alike was, "Read, read, read."

Coleman’s professional activities were astonishingly wide. He served on a long list of university committees, including the President's Committee on Race, the Affirmative Action Search Committee, the Committee on Curriculum Integration and many others.

He gave countless hours to working with students as an advisor for the Black Student Union and Cultural Center and as a dissertation advisor for students in English, music, education, special education and psychology. He was president of the Oregon Folklore Society and contributing editor for Circle Poetry Forum, and Northwest Journal of African and Afro-American Studies.

In the larger community, he contributed much to the arts, serving on the Lane Arts Council, the Oregon Arts Foundation and the Western States Arts Federation. He was also a consultant for the National Endowment for the Arts, the local Committee on Hate Crimes and the Committee on Prevention of Gang Activity.

He received many honors in recognition of this work. In 1986, for example, the Pacific Northwest Region of the National Council of Black Scholars gave him the Frederick Douglass Scholarship Award. At the UO he won the Charles E. Johnson Memorial Award in 1989 for his commitment to social change, freedom of speech and the promotion of new knowledge and the learning process.

In 1991, the Office of Multicultural Affairs presented him with its Outstanding Faculty Award, followed in 1998 with its Most Honored Professor Award. Its annual lecture series was named in Coleman's honor. In 1991, the city of Eugene awarded him the Martin Luther King Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award.

He is survived by his wife Charmaine, sons Edwin and Callan, and two grandchildren.