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A Man You Should Know/An Article that May Be Worth Reading

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 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.

Comment
 
 

Comments:

Ken Green      5:27 PM Thu 9/26/2013

Loved the article. I just became a lifetime subscriber to Chapel Hill Memories.
 

Reed Guthrie      8:33 PM Wed 9/25/2013

I love reading your articles. Please do a piece on UNC football coach
Bill Dooley.
 

Alan Sutton      10:03 AM Tue 9/24/2013

Thanks for your website. It is great to have such an extensive history of my favorite place on earth.
 

Carrie Mayberry      8:20 AM Mon 9/23/2013

Wonderful article. Chapel Hill still had a lot of great characters when I lived there from 1964-1972. Do you remember the man who owned CAROLINA CAB? I think his first name was Thurmon. I think he was the hardest working man in town, and also the most successful black person in those days.
 

Connie Washington      4:39 PM Mon 9/16/2013

I remember Walter Spearman who I think became Dean of Journalism in the 1970s. He was very active in the Playmakers Theater.


 

Linda Norwood      4:49 PM Sat 9/14/2013

Do you remember Carrington Smith? He was the man who ran The Carolina Theater for more than 40 years. I would love to learn more about him.

I enjoyed the piece on Skipper Coffin.
 

Bill Price      1:04 PM Thu 9/12/2013

I would love it if you would do a profile of UNC match professor Elisha Mitchell who Mount Mitchell is named for. As I recall your Dad was also a UNC math professor and I think you told me hiked from the bottom to the top of that mountain several times, usually starting in Black Mountain.
 

David McBride      9:56 PM Wed 9/11/2013

Do you know if there are any books of Jeff MacNelly's "Shoe" comic strips?
 

David McBride      9:55 PM Wed 9/11/2013

Do you know if there are any books of Jeff MacNelly's "Shoe" comic strips?
 

Sherry Cook      9:48 AM Wed 9/11/2013

Charly - I remember you when you were the manager of a record store in downtown Chapel Hill in the 1970s. You were the most optimistic and upbeat person I had ever known. I remember you telling me that while everything was not always great in your life, you were nevertheless committed to finding something great in it everyday. I think Skipper Coffin was also that type of person, and may have been a role model for you.
 

Peggy Hoover      3:24 PM Mon 9/9/2013

Your articles keep amazing me. I am surprised a young kid was so aware and cared so much about the adult world.
 

Gail Morrison      10:02 AM Sat 9/7/2013

I had the pleasure of working for Jim Schumaker at the Chapel Hill Newspaper the same year that Jeff MacNelly was there. I hope you do full articles on both of these men.
 

Mary Sanders      8:49 AM Fri 9/6/2013

Hey Charlie - I enjoyed the article on Coffin. A few years ago you told me you were going to do a piece on UNC English professor, and former WCHL personality, Wayne Pond. I I hope you do that one soon.
 

Craig Taylor      12:35 PM Tue 9/3/2013

When I think about how life was like in Chapel Hill 50 years ago it's disturbing to realize how certain human characteristics are completely dead. People like Skipper Coffin were common then, and now they are nonexistent.
 

Roz Claire      10:40 AM Mon 9/2/2013

I love your blog but there's way too much to read, and my time is valuable. More pictures and shorter articles please.
 

Jamie Paige      8:27 PM Sun 9/1/2013

A nice article and I could really use a $1000.00 right now. Please contact me the moment my name is selected.
 

Dina Hawkins      1:53 PM Sat 8/31/2013

What a delightful profile. Thanks for sharing.
 

Meredith Hoover      3:37 PM Thu 8/29/2013

I remember a few professors like Coffin when I was at UNC in the 1970s. I really enjoyed being around people like this who were significantly smarter than me.
 

Anna Kumar      11:15 AM Mon 8/26/2013

I would bet people looking back at us 4000 years from today would be more fascinated in Skipper Coffin than Dean Smith.
 

Pat Hennessey      6:15 PM Sun 8/25/2013

Great article Charly. I covered your anti-war arrest at FT BRAGG in 1968 and the subsequent trial for the NEWS & OBSERVER. I recall you were convicted. Did that ever get overturned?
 

Summer Harris      2:06 PM Sat 8/24/2013

There are many reasons why I love Chapel Hill Memories, but the chance of winning a $1000 sweepstakes with better odds that most contests and any lottery has to be the top one.
 

Reed Collins      3:04 PM Thu 8/22/2013

I think it is wonderful that many of your articles honor and celebrate the achievements and legacy of Chapel Hillians, past and present. I only lived in Chapel Hill for two years (1982 and 1983), but still feel nostalgic for the town, and your blog paints a vivid picture of much of what I loved there.
 

Natalie Lawrence      12:15 PM Wed 8/21/2013

Most people I know are boring. Charly, I have never met you, but from reading your blog you seem so interesting. I love it that you took the time to observe people when you were growing up and now take the time to distill inspiring stories about them. I wish there were more people like you.
 

Bill A      4:49 PM Tue 8/20/2013

Nice piece, Charly. Coffin sounds like the type of person and educator who is all too rare. Interesting how many people able to directly influence and guide others as a teacher choose not to pursue what is likely the most noble pure profession of them all, chasing the dollar instead. Pitty. Re Jeff MacNelly's Shoe and Jim Schmaker, first time I've heard that story. Glad you included it!
 

Debbie Mills      4:15 PM Tue 8/20/2013

I enjoyed this article. Few people I come in contact with are worth emulating, and Coffin seemed to have so many admirable characteristics.
 

R. Locke      9:04 AM Mon 8/19/2013

Chapel Hill's heroes are basketball and football players, and their coaches, however it is the great professors at UNC who are they real stars. Their love for their subjects and their inspirational teaching methods made differences in so many of their student’s lives. It is alarming to me how much these people are taken for granted now.
 

Gordon Duggan      11:07 AM Sun 8/18/2013

Skipper Coffin really comes to life in your article. I feel like I really know him after reading the piece and can easily imagine living in his time.
 

Jack Wells      8:35 PM Sat 8/17/2013

Chary I loved this piece. I wish I had been alive then.

I have heard you have a treasure trove of Woody Durham stories. I really hope those make it into an article soon. He is my favorite Chapel Hillian.
 

Mora Albert      9:42 AM Sat 8/17/2013

Chapel Hill Memories is my favorite form of escapism. Your childhood seems almost like fantasy to me. I grew up in the 1990s where there really were not any interesting people in Chapel Hill. Everyone I knew was multi-tasking and gadgets and technology dominated life. I wish there was still the sense of community and time spent getting to know people that occurred when you were growing up.
 

Scott Adams      5:38 AM Fri 8/16/2013

I love your memories of the people of Chapel Hill. My best memories of the place are the bars, partying, girls, and basketball.
 

Frances Harper      6:43 AM Thu 8/15/2013

I was 6 the year we moved to Chapel Hill and that was also the year that OJ Coffey died. I do not have any remembrance of him, but certainly am quite familiar with Jim Shumaker and Charles Kuralt. Coffey sounds like quite a fellow, and certainly the type of professor I would like to have had!
 

Neal Rattican      7:40 PM Wed 8/14/2013

Thoroughly enjoyed that piece, Charly. Since he had died three years before I got to Chapel Hill, I never had the opportunity to meet or learn from Skipper Coffin. Still, I am a product of the journalism school that was and is his legacy. I should hope he would be proud of that school and the topnotch national reputation it continues to maintain. Certainly, it has produced many fine journalists over the last half century or so. Some of those journalists went on to earn national prominence, but perhaps most of the others put their knowledge and skills to work building an extremely strong network of community newspapers across the length and breadth of North Carolina.
 

Sarah holstrom      5:18 PM Wed 8/14/2013

I really enjoyed the history about an amazing individual from a place I still consider my home.
 

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Bite Sized Facts Link



Chapel Hill is located on a hill whose only distinguishing feature in the 18th century was a small chapel on top called New Hope Chapel. This church was built in 1752 and is currently the location of The Carolina Inn. The town was founded in 1819, and chartered in 1851.

 

 

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.

-- Charles Kuralt

 

 

Dark Side of the Hill -- Pink Floyd, the creators of the most popular album in history, Dark Side of the Moon, took the second half of their name from Floyd Council, a Chapel Hill native, and great blues singer and guitarist. He once belonged to a group called "The Chapel Hillbillies".

 

 

Check out Charly Mann's other website:
Oklahoma Birds and Butterflies

http://oklahomabirdsandbutterflies.com

 



We need your help. Send your submissions, ideas, photos, and questions to CHMemories@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

There would probably be no Chapel Hill if the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees in 1793 had not chosen land across from New Hope Chapel for the location of the university. By 1800 there were about 100 people living in thirty houses surrounding the campus.

 

 

The University North Carolina's first student was Hinton James, who enrolled in February, 1795. There is now a dormitory on the campus named in his honor.

 

 

 

 

The University of North Carolina was closed from 1870 to 1875 because of lack of state funding.

 

 

 

 

William Ackland left his art collection and $1.25 million to Duke University in 1940 on the condition that he would be buried in the art museum that the University was to build with his bequest. Duke rejected this condition even though members of the Duke Family are buried in Duke Chapel. What followed was a long and acrimonious legal battle between Ackland relatives who now wanted the inheritance, Rollins College, and the University of North Carolina, each attempting to receive the funds. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and in 1949 UNC was awarded the money for the museum. Ackland is buried near the museum's entrance. When the museum first opened, in the early sixties, there were rumors that his remains were leaking out of the mausoleum.

 

 

The official name of the Arboretum on the University of North Carolina campus is the Coker Arboretum. It is named after Dr. William Cocker, the University's first botany professor. It occupies a little more than five acres. It was founded in 1903.

 

 

Chapel Hill's main street has always been called Franklin Street. It was named after Benjamin Franklin in the early 1790s.

 

 



We need your help. Send your submissions, ideas, photos, and questions to CHMemories@gmail.com.

 

 

Chapel Hill High School and Chapel Hill Junior High were on Franklin Street in the same location as University Square until the mid 1960s.

 

 

The Colonial Drug Store at 450 West Franklin Street was owned and operated by John Carswell. It was famous for a fresh-squeezed carbonated orange beverage called a "Big O". In the early 1970s, I managed the Record and Tape Center next door, and must have had over 100 of those drinks. The Colonial Drug Store closed in 1996.

 

 

Sutton's Drugstore, which opened in 1923, has one of the last soda fountains in the South. It is one of the few businesses remaining on Franklin Street that was in operation when I was growing up in the 1950s.

 

 

Future President Gerald Ford lived in Chapel Hill twice. First when he was 24, in 1938, he took a law couse in summer school at UNC. He lived in the Carr Building, which was a law school dormitory. At the same time, Richard Nixon, the man he served under as Vice President, was attending law school at Duke. In 1942, Ford returned to Chapel Hill to attend the U.S. Navy's Pre-Flight School training program. He lived in a rental house on Hidden Hills Drive.

 

 

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