In the lives of college students, certain administrators and faculty members are legendary — some because of their charismatic leadership, some because of their kindness and wit, some because of their loyalty and commitment to the whole idea of true education. Winifred E. Coleman was an administrator who embodied all of these qualities. Throughout the decade of the 1970’s at Trinity, Winnie, as she was known to her many friends, was the Dean of Students. Those of us who knew her first, and best, as Dean Coleman were saddened to learn of her death last week after a long illness. We remember her with admiration and appreciation for the ways in which she influenced our lives.
I was a Trinity sophomore when Dean Coleman arrived at Trinity. My class, the Greens of ’74, already had a reputation for doing our best to be disruptive. In those days, student protests and demonstrations were de rigeur — against the Vietnam War, against injustice, against anything that smacked of being older than we were, which was just about anything and anyone over the age of 30. Winnie Coleman was not much older than that when she arrived at Trinity as our new dean, having come from Cazenovia College near her home town of Syracuse, NY. We immediately put her to the test: we wanted the “right” to have young men visit in our rooms — called “parietals” in those very quaint days — and so we staged protests and petitions and carried on as if we were truly in the depths of oppression. Dean Coleman exercised patience and showed firm leadership in meeting with students, hearing us out, and working with student leadership to come up with a plan to try out visitation on a limited basis. She was no pushover, but she also believed in student self-governance. The Honor System was a very important part of he pedagogy as dean.
Dean Coleman believed deeply in the power of a strong student government to teach students the necessary skills of leadership. In my senior year, I became the student government president and I had the privilege of working closely with her, and also then-President Sr. Margaret Claydon. My own development as an administrator and school leader clearly benefitted from my experience working with Dean Coleman and Sr. Margaret.
Dean Coleman was also a notable orator — she knew how to give a great speech and worked hard to make sure that all of the formal dinners at Trinity (we had quite a few back then!) were fun and memorable. She knew more good jokes than any of us could ever recount, and she always had us laughing, which was a good sign. We paid attention!
Later on, when I was in law school, Winnie hired me to be the residence director of Kerby Hall where nearly 200 students lived back then, mostly first and second year students (yes, packed into those tiny rooms!). For three years I learned the ropes of student life administration, and we had many a grand adventure managing residence life together. Winnie cared deeply about every single student. I remember a time when a student was missing, but we had evidence indicating she was just hanging out in the wrong place. In the middle of the night Winnie drove me and another administrator to a place in another town where we believed the student could be found —she was there, and we spent the rest of the night making sure she was ok and arranging for her to return to the residence hall with no recriminations, just a great deal of care and concern for her welfare. Winnie was that kind of dean.
After a decade caring for Trinity students, Winnie moved on to be the president of the National Council of Catholic Women, and then later, the crowning achievement of her career, she became president of Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, Connecticut, known today as the University of Saint Joseph. There is a wonderful tribute to Winnie on their website. She was as beloved at Saint Joseph as she was at Trinity.
Of course, no memory of Winnie Coleman can be complete without The Dubliner — yes, one of Trinity’s favorite spots at the corner of North Capitol and Massachusetts Avenues. Winnie’s brother Danny created the Dubliner in the early 1970’s, and generations of Trinity Women can thank the Coleman family for countless fond memories and opportunities to learn all the words to all of the Irish folk songs!
Winnie’s large immediate family of siblings and grand nieces and nephews will surely miss her very much, as will her extended family of many friends. Her legacy lives on in the ways in which she influenced so many lives at Trinity, Cazenovia, the University of Saint Joseph and elsewhere. As I write about her today I remember her with gratitude and deep appreciation for having learned so much from this wonderful role model. Farewell, Winnie!
Do you remember Dean Coleman? Share your memories in the comments section below…
We will have a memorial Mass for Dean Coleman on October 3. Watch the Alumnae News for more information.