History Lesson: John Coleman Goes Undercover

In 1974, then-President of Haverford College John Coleman went undercover as a garbageman, sandwich maker, and construction worker for his book Blue Collar Journal, which later became the movie The Secret Life of John Chapman.


John R. Coleman, Haverford’s ninth president, published his book Blue Collar Journal in 1974 and caused a sensation. The book was based on his experiences going incognito on a “secret” sabbatical, during which he hauled trash in a small town in Maryland, made sandwiches in a Boston restaurant, and dug sewer lines in Atlanta. (A stint as a dishwasher lasted an hour before he was fired without explanation.)

An economist who had taught labor relations at M.I.T. earlier in his career, Coleman embarked on his gritty research project to explore what he saw as a widening divide between the world of academia and the lives of workers. It was also a way, he told one interviewer, for him to break out of the “lockstep” of his own life. In a first for a Haverford president, Coleman’s book became the basis for a made-for-TV movie. Titled The Secret Life of John Chapman, the 1978 special starred Ralph Waite (best known as the father on the show The Waltons) as a college president turned laborer.

Coleman lead Haverford from 1967 to 1977, arriving at the College at a time when total enrollment stood at just 575. He is fondly remembered for earning the trust of students during turbulent times of change and protest, and for taking up the fight to make Haverford co-ed. But forces were arrayed against him on coeducaton, and when the Board made a compromise decision that allowed only for women transfer students, Coleman resigned. Many years later, he wrote that, while he was sad that he did not get to see the change happen during his tenure, he’d come to realize that the Board was right to wait until he was gone: “Bryn Mawr’s concerns were moderated, and Haverford was better prepared to treat women as equals with its men.”

Coleman went on to work for a foundation devoted to prison reform. And he resumed his undercover research methods, checking in as an inmate or guard in prisons across the country to investigate conditions. He later became an innkeeper in Vermont.

—Eils Lotozo

“History Lesson” is a regular series in Haverford magazine.