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Emerson mourns the loss of Rev. John Coffee

Rhea Becker and Amanda Jenkins
May 16, 2012

Longtime Emerson faculty member and Professor Emeritus of History John M. Coffee Jr. died on May 8, 2012. He was 83 and a resident of Brookline, Massachusetts.

Coffee taught at the College for 35 years, and was the author (with Richard Wentworth ’79) of a large volume on the history of Emerson College, A Century of Eloquence.

John Coffee is pictured at Alumni Weekend 2006, where he was honored after his retirement. It was a standing-room-only event.

He was universally beloved by his colleagues and “adored” by his students. He was known as a talented storyteller who brought history alive in his classroom.

Coffee’s Emerson career began in 1966, when he started teaching part time. In 1970, he became a full-time faculty member and taught a variety of courses, among them Western Civilization, Religion in Eastern Culture, History of New England, and History of the Bible.

Born in Tacoma, Washington, on November 20, 1928, Coffee came to the Northeast when his father was elected to the U.S. Congress. He attended Yale University and graduated in 1951; he then pursued two master’s degrees at Harvard, in divinity (MDiv) and theology (ThM).

Coffee was an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, serving churches in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He was the Minister Emeritus of the First Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and served as president of the Boston Ministers Association.

Coffee was an enthusiastic collector of transportation tokens, such as car wash tokens and parking tokens. He authored numerous articles on the subject of transportation and numismatics (the study or collection of currency). He also authored several books, including The Atwood-Coffee Catalogue of United States and Canadian Transportation Tokens; Real Estate Tokens; and Car Wash Tokens. Coffee was a member of the American Vecturist Association (AVA) and served as the editor of its monthly newsletter “The Fare Box” since 1949.

The 1981 Emersonian yearbook was dedicated to Coffee, in honor of his teaching methodology and his ability to make historical events relevant to modern life.

Through one of his students, Coffee was introduced to author Stephen King; King enjoyed the encounter so much that he named the main character in The Green Mile for Coffee.

A memorial service for Coffe will be held at the First Church in Boston, on Monday, June 18, 1:30-4:30 pm. It will include a service and reception.

View or sign Coffee’s online remembrance guestbook »

Emerson Remembrances

President Emerita Jacqueline Liebergott said, “His classes were large, because his door was always open. My math tells me he may have taught two-thirds of the students who attended Emerson during his time here. The word on the street was, ‘Don’t leave Emerson without taking a course with John Coffee.’ He was intellectually challenging and he had a good heart. We all have Coffee moments we share with others because the lessons of great teachers live forever.”

Gary Grossman ’70, a TV producer, Emerson Trustee, and former student of Coffee’s, said, “John Coffee remains a legend within Emerson College. About a year ago, I attended a play in Los Angeles. At one interactive moment with the audience, an actor called out from the stage, ‘Who was your favorite teacher ever?’ One audience member called out ‘Reverend John Coffee from Emerson College!’ Applause came from all corners of the theater; other Emerson grads, who happened to be there by coincidence, all agreed. He was one of the most phenomenal teachers, influential scholars, and remarkable mentors students ever knew.”

Lauren Shaw, professor in the Department of Visual and Media Arts, remembered how “he adored his students and his students adored him. I think that was why he taught for so long—because he loved the students. He had very little tolerance for anything that took him away from teaching. He had a devoted relationship with students long after they had graduated.” Every summer, Shaw recalled, Coffee boarded a train and rode across the United States. “That was his absolute, to-die-for pleasure and he would come back with amazing stories.” Shaw said Coffee inspired “adulation” in his students.

Assistant Professor of Journalism Michael Brown, a longtime colleague of Coffee’s, said, “He was a favorite of so many people. He was a great storyteller and a good, good, good person.”

Former student and current Trustee Robert Friend ’79 said, “The Reverend John Coffee was an iconic Emerson professor. His presentation style brought the history curriculum to life in a dramatic way. He is a true Emersonian who will be greatly missed by all alumni who had the distinct privilege of experiencing his caring gift of education.”

Former student Ron Bostwick ’81, co-president of the Colorado Chapter of the Alumni Association, said, “I feel the best example of what Reverend Coffee was to Emersonians wasn’t how many students took his classes, or how many took multiple classes with him. It was how many former students, from across the decades, happily came to honor him at his ‘Coffee with Coffee’ retirement talk at Alumni Weekend in 2006.”

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