Jack Coleman, force behind Chester’s Players Guild, Overture to Christmas, dies at 95

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

To the wider world, John Royston Coleman was the accomplished economist, college president, central banker, foundation executive and author who took off for the hills of Vermont to run a country inn.

But to people in Chester — where he settled to run The Inn at Long Last —  Jack Coleman  was a friend who added a great deal to the social and cultural fabric of the town. Coleman died Tuesday in Washington, D.C., at age 95, according to his son John.  He had been suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.

Coleman giving an Independence Day oration as grandson Wil looks on in 1986

Coleman giving an Independence Day oration as grandson Will looks on in 1986. All photos courtesy of John Coleman unless otherwise noted.

Jack Coleman was born in Copper Cliff, Ont., on June 24, 1921 to Richard Mowbray Coleman and Mary Irene Lawson. Coleman served in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve during World War II. He earned a B.A. from Victoria University in Toronto and an M.A. and PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. He went on to teach in the economics departments of MIT and Carnegie Mellon University between 1949 and 1965, when he left the classroom for the Ford Foundation to work on economic and social development programs.

In 1967, the labor economist became the president of Haverford College near Philadelphia and remained there until 1977 when he resigned over a disagreement with the board about whether the school should become a co-ed institution. He was in favor of it, the board was against it. Three years later in 1980, Haverford went co-ed and awarded Coleman an honorary degree.

During his time at Haverford, Coleman took a sabbatical to work as a laborer digging ditches, collecting garbage, working in  a prison and as a “salad-and-sandwich man” at Union Oyster House in Boston. His experiences became the book Blue-Collar Journal: A College President’s Sabbatical, which was made into the television movie titled The Secret Life of John Chapman.

Coleman cooking on the line at the Inn at Long Last.

Coleman cooking on the line at The Inn at Long Last.

He served as president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation until 1985 when he “retired” to Chester to rehab and reopen the 37-room hotel that is now the Fullerton Inn.

Former Chester Lister Carol Balch remembers one of her first encounters with Coleman when he had just learned that the upgrades and improvements he had made to the building had nearly doubled its tax assessment.

“I thought ‘oh boy’ when he came in,” said Balch. “He wanted to know how I reached the appraised value and we sat for two or three hours going over every detail of it in the Marshall & Swift manual. Then he said, ‘Ok, that’s fine, thank you very much’ and left. He never grieved the assessment.”

Coleman as the Stage Manager in Our Town in 1997. Photo courtesy Players Guild.

Coleman as the Stage Manager in Our Town in 1997. Photo courtesy Chester Players Guild.

And in time, Balch was among the many Chester residents who would join the Chester Players Guild, which Coleman founded and directed. The Players Guild put on well-known plays like Our Town as well as locally written fare like the dramatization of the story of Clarence Adams, Chester’s famous “gentleman burglar.”

“Jack took some committed amateurs and pushed us to do more than we ever could have imagined, encouraging us to grow in ways we never realized until we had done it,” said Rick Bates. “He made it happen for about 10 years and a lot of people had a lot of fun.”

“He was genuine and fun,” said former town Clerk and Treasurer Sandy Walker.

Underscoring his essential role with the group, Balch remembered with a laugh, “We had a life-size cardboard cutout of Jack, and we would put it out whenever he was not around.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I was working in the theater by myself and that thing would scare the hell out of me,” said Bates.

Coleman's handwritten checklist for the final planning meeting for the 1990 edition of 'Overture'

Coleman’s handwritten checklist for the final planning meeting for the 1990 edition of Overture to Christmas.

Coleman was also the driving force behind Chester’s Overture to Christmas, which began in 1986 and combined events for children with caroling and contests — all with a Victorian air. A November 1990 story in The Message predicted that — as in years past — 400 carolers would participate in a candlelight walk from church to church along Main Street and event sponsors published tips on how to adapt modern clothing to look Victorian so people could “dress the part.”

Coleman also found time to hold public office including stints as agent to defend suits and as a justice of the peace. In the latter capacity, he performed some of the first same sex unions in the nation. He also brought decades of academic experience to his tenure on the Green Mountain Union High School board.

“Jack Coleman served as a school board member for nine years,” said board chair Alison DesLauriers. “He shared his great intellect and his passion for education … and we, as a community, were fortunate to have Jack invest his time and energy in our school.”

“He was completely dedicated to the students and not afraid to be outspoken on their behalf,” said Bill Bourque who served on the high school board with Coleman.  “He was a brilliant guy who focused on maintaining high standards and didn’t want to cut corners.”

Coleman with a sleigh on the front porch of the Inn.

Coleman with a sleigh on the front porch of the inn.

Bill and Lynne Reed, who owned Misty Valley Books for 15 years, were, at first, Coleman’s tenants as they moved into the apartment above the bookstore, which is next to the inn. Later, they would become his landlords when Coleman sold them the building and continued to live in the attached house.  “He was a neighbor and a friend,” said Bill Reed.

“Jack would walk from The Green to the Jiffy Mart every morning for his New York Times,” said Reed who described Coleman’s pace as “snail-like” in his later years. But according to Pat Budnick, who worked with Coleman on Overture, he would never accept a ride. “It could be snowing or raining and he would say ‘I’ll get there.’ ”

“When Jack became too frail to get the paper, we would pick it up for him,” said Reed, “so we got to see him every day.”

“He was a reader, and there was a literary cast to everything he did, including the Inn,” said Reed. “The place was full of books.”

Dwight Currie concurred. He and partner Michael Kohlmann bought the fledgling Misty Valley Books in 1987 when it was still operating out of the Vermont National Mall (now People’s Bank) in Springfield with hopes of moving the store.

“When we told Jack that we wanted to move the store from Springfield to Chester, he wept,” said Currie. “He gave us the space rent free for the first year and every year after that we would tell him ‘you should raise the rent.’ He was a man of uncommon generosity. That little bookstore wouldn’t be there today without Jack.”

Coleman lived in Chester from 1986 until 2011 when, in frail health, he moved to the Philadelphia area to be with family. Coleman’s son John told The Telegraph that “Chester and its remarkable people had a very special place in Dad’s heart.” While he is remembered for plays and festivities of the past, there is one legacy that people see every day on the welcome sign across from the Country Girl Diner. Coleman was the author of the slogan “The Vermont you were hoping to find.”

“When Jack left Chester,” said Sandy Walker, “he left a hole no one can fill.”

A son, Paul, and a daughter, Patty, died before Coleman. He is survived by two sons, John and Stephen and one daughter, Nancy, seven grandchildren and a host of friends in Chester.

“I am so glad I had the great good fortune to meet Jack,” said Currie.

A memorial remembrance is planned for Oct. 2 in Haverford, Pa.

To learn more about Jack Coleman at Haverford College, click here.

The New York Times also wrote about Jack Coleman. You can read that obituary here.

An obituary also appears in Philly.com. You can read that here.

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  1. Diane Wilder says:

    Haverford College plans a memorial for Jack this upcoming Sunday at 1:00 pm in Founders Great Hall, Haverford, PA 19041.

  2. Cheryl Cook says:

    I had the pleasure of being an acquaintance. Jack was a kindhearted gentleman. A real class act!!

  3. Lew Watters says:

    This is a really great and thoroughly researched obituary about Jack’s later years in Chester that we were all privileged to have shared. Amazing Grace. Thank you, Shawn Cunningham.

  4. Chris Meyer says:

    I had many wonderful encounters with Jack on his morning walks, he always asked about my oldest daughter and how she was doing at school. What a classic gentleman he was.

  5. Tim Roper says:

    You were a good man, Jack Coleman. Thanks for sharing so much of yourself with our little town.

  6. Donna mclaughlin says:

    R.I.P. Jack. You left a piece of yourself in all of us.