by Charly Mann
The Chapel Hill I love and remember is not a town or place, but an extraordinary group of people made up of UNC students, administrators, professors and all sorts of townspeople ranging from merchants to janitors. For most of my formative years the population of Chapel Hill was 11,000 from September through May and then dropped to only 5,000 during the summer months when the University was not in regular session. (Today by contrast there are 30,000 students attending UNC plus 3,400 full-time faculty members and an additional 3,200 administrators and supporting staff.) Being a Chapel Hillian then meant being part of a nurturing community that created people with a uniquely Chapel Hill attitude. The primary reason I created Chapel Hill Memories was so that it could be forum for all of us to celebrate the remarkable people of this town.
The man who most personified Chapel Hill during my first decade of life was Skipper Coffin who died in 1956 when I was only six, but was so ingrained in the spirit of the town that his presence was felt well into the early 1960s. I vividly remember hearing soon after he passed away that he would never be forgotten by the town, yet I doubt if any of you reading this have ever heard of him. I will now introduce you to him.
O.J. ("Oscar") Coffin was the most beloved man in Chapel Hill for more than thirty years starting in 1920s. Before that he was editor of The Raleigh Times and wrote hard-hitting editorials that were considered quite progressive in his time, including one that supported the teaching of evolution in North Carolina public schools and universities. In 1926 he became the only teacher of journalism at UNC. He was an inspiring teacher who almost single-handedly created the acclaimed UNC School of Journalism and became its first dean. Many of the leading newspaper and TV journalists around the country were mentored by him including the beloved CBS newsman Charles Kuralt who now rests in Chapel Hill's old cemetery along with Coffin.
Skipper was an incredibly friendly and lighthearted individual who loved talking to everyone he passed as he walked along Franklin Street or through the UNC campus. He was always embarrassed with the title Dean and insisted everyone call him O.J. or Skipper. I remember one or more students at his side whenever I saw him. He especially liked to hang out with students at the depilated bar call The Shack on Rosemary Street (see article: The Shack of Chapel Hill) and drink beer. His wife and many of his friends teasingly referred to The Shack as his "Iron Lung" because they said he couldn't breathe if he stayed away from it for more than a couple of hours. New students were often shocked and saddened when looking for Skipper in his office and then told by his secretary he was in an "iron lung" (which in the 1950's was the name of a piece of hospital equipment that enabled people who were paralyzed from the neck down to breathe).
One time one of Coffin's students walked into class about ten minutes late. Skipper asked him sarcastically if he had anything he would like to say to him. The student just as sarcastically replied, "I think you should dismiss the class now and reconvene it at The Shack for a beer." Coffin smiled and said, "Class is dismissed and will meet at The Shack in ten minutes. Students who do not show up will have their grades lowered for the semester."
A former student of his told me that on the first day of class he would introduce himself by saying: "My name is Oscar Jackson Coffin, and so there will be no trouble about our social standing, my uncle – who I was named after – was hung. A terribly fine fellow, but the jury didn’t see it that way." Another one of his classroom speeches I heard that typifies his personality is the following: "Ladies and Gentlemen I don't mind you smoking in my class, but I would like you to use ashtrays. Don't let me catch you throwing your finished cigarette on the floor and grinding it under with your heel. The people who clean up this classroom are perhaps a lot smarter than you are, but haven't had the chance like you to get a good education."
O.J. Coffin in his classroom
Coffin believed that the most important aspect of being a good journalist was great writing and that was always his emphasis in his classes. He assigned journalism students passages from the Bible that were to be turned it into dramatic newspaper articles. Skipper would read back each student's article to the class with such sarcasm and hilarity that almost everyone thought he would have made a much better living as a comic than a journalism professor. Coffin said he believed sarcasm was the gentlest method of instilling how much improvement a student's writing needed.
One of Coffin's students was Jim Schumaker who would one day become the model for Jeff MacNelly's Shoe comic strip. Schumaker also became long-time editor of the Chapel Hill Weekly (Newspaper) and after that was a UNC journalism professor. When he was in an editorial writing course of Skipper's he failed to turn in any of the ten editorials he had been assigned during the semester. On the last day of class Coffin told him that if he did not have all those editorials handed into his office by 8:00 AM the next morning he would receive an "F" for the course. Schumaker worked through the night to write all the editorials and handed them to Skipper when he was about to walk into the office the next morning. Coffin took the large stack of papers in his hand while puffing on a large cigar said, "Let's make a deal. If I don't have to read these I will give you an "A" in the course." Schumaker accepted and Coffin threw the stack of editorials in the wastebasket.
Jeff MacNelly's Shoe comic strip inspired by Skipper Coffin's student Jim Schumaker
I am not sure if articles like this one have much interest to people who look at Chapel Hill Memories. Since profiling Chapel Hill's memorable characters is what I most enjoy writing about I have decided to try to encourage additional feedback on this piece. There will be a $1,000 prize given after this article receives a total of 1,000 e-mail responses and comments combined. (Currently e-mails outnumber comments on articles about 10 to 1.) When the 1,000 total has been reached all of the e-mail addresses belonging to people who have left a comment or sent an e-mail related to the article the will be entered into a random generation program and the name selected will receive the $1,000. The only rules are: only one e-mail or comment per address will be counted; you cannot enter using multiple e-mail addresses or those of other family members; in order to count the comment or e-mail must directly relate to the subject of this article.
I encourage everyone reading this to submit articles about Chapel Hill people you remember.
What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. or the crisp October nights. No, our love for this place is based upon the fact that it is as it was meant to be, The University of the People.