James Coleman seldom said No to grad students. It seemed unusual that so productive a scholar, a teacher who cared so much for his undergraduate students, would willingly accept the responsibility of serving on countless grad students’ MA and PhD committees. Students went to James often: they enjoyed his carefully phrased questions on oral examinations. They enjoyed knowing he supported them and their work.
James saw such service, I think, as one of the ways he could be quietly responsible. Filling that role of a quietly responsible person was characteristic of James’s demeanor: he served. He was aware. He knew the politics, although he tried to stay above them. Never given to self-praise, James Coleman did his work, met his classes, wrote his books and essays, and showed up when he was needed. Several times when I would nag him that he needed to ask the department’s then-chairperson to nominate him for a university chair, he modestly protested.
James Coleman was an unusual colleague. He was a man given to steady loyalty—to the writers he loved and often taught: John Edgar Wideman, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Edward P. Jones, and others; to his friends; and to the many grateful students he helped and supported.