Peter J. Coleman (1926-2004)
Richard M. Fried, October 2004
Peter Jarrett Coleman, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, died on March 9, 2004, in Wellington, New Zealand, at the age of 77, after a brief illness. His was a pioneering career: he was the first New Zealander to seek graduate training in history in the United States rather than Great Britain. His life, career, and writings continued to interweave the histories of those two societies.
Born in Wellington on March 14, 1926, Peter Coleman attended Wellington Teachers College and took his BA and MA (Hons.) in 1947 and 1949 at Victoria University in the same city. He taught at the primary and secondary levels in Wellington from 1947 to 1950. His interest in the history of the United States and of "the frontier" and his reading of Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains launched a correspondence with that author and led to the offer of a fellowship for doctoral work at the University of Texas at Austin. Coleman liked to reminisce about his mid-summer arrival in Texas in his suit of heavy New Zealand wool. He earned his PhD in 1953, completing a dissertation on "New Zealand: The Evolution of a Social Democracy."
For several years he held a series of temporary jobs, at St. John’s College of the University of Manitoba, Park College, the University of Nebraska, and Washington University; these were interspersed with several fellowships and a postdoc at Harvard Law School. In 1953, he was also briefly an intern with the United Nations Technical Assistance Board. From 1962 to 1967 he was assistant, then senior, book editor at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
His association with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) began as an associate professor in 1966. He spent the years 1971–73 at Wayne State University, returning to UIC (then still the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle) as an associate dean in the Graduate College. In 1976 he returned full-time to the history department, from which he retired in 1987.
Coleman’s output as a scholar was distinguished. His first book, The Transformation of Rhode Island, 1790–1860 (Brown University Press, 1963), quickly took a prominent place among that era’s reinterpretations of the early national period. His next book, Debtors and Creditors in America: Insolvency, Imprisonment for Debt, and Bankruptcy, 1607–1900 (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1974) cut a broad swath through economic history. One eminence grise in the profession said it was "destined to become a classic." His third book, Progressivism and the World of Reform: New Zealand and the Origins of the American Welfare State (University Press of Kansas, 1987), made a significant contribution to the internationalization of the history of the Progressive Era, trans-Pacific rather than trans-Atlantic, and re-engaged him with the history of his homeland.
Coleman authored more than 20 articles in such venues as the Pacific Historical Review, Journal of Modern History, Business History Review, and William and Mary Quarterly. He was directly responsible for the editing of 11 books while at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and had a hand in editing some 30 others. He had nearly finished writing a book on debtors and creditors in New Zealand at the time of his death; it is to be completed by Ken Scadden.
Always drawn by New Zealand’s call, he returned to Wellington for what was a retirement in name only. He re-established scholarly and personal links, remained active in the historical profession, busied himself in local causes and organizations, and applied his green thumb to what became the magnificent garden of the home he shared with his wife Maribeth, who survives him. He was a colleague who will be missed for many reasons, but notably for his conviviality and his broad array of interests, academic and otherwise.
Richard M. Fried
University of Illinois at Chicago