‘Moe’ Coleman remembered as mediator, mentor and champion of fairness


Morton “Moe” Coleman, the founding director of the Institute of Politics who pressed for both civil and civic engagement in Pittsburgh, died Jan. 28, 2019, at 86.

Born in 1932 and raised here, Coleman earned his master’s in social work and Ph.D. in political science at Pitt and spent his early adult years working to change conditions in the Hill District and then as a civil rights advocate. This led to a lifelong focus, as the Institute of Politics website notes, on “foster(ing) communication across race and class lines to support hiring among underrepresented groups; union membership; fair housing; and access to quality and equal education, health care and human services.”

Prior to his decades as a faculty member in the School of Social Work, Coleman was dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Connecticut, Henry Ford II’s advisor on Detroit urban issues, secretary to Pittsburgh Mayor Joseph Barr in 1963 and senior social planner for the community renewal program in the Pittsburgh Department of City Planning. 

Tracy Soska, Social Work faculty member and chair of the community, organization and social action (COSA) concentration, met Coleman in 1978 at the end of Soska’s time as a COSA student. Coleman was then head of the Connecticut civic group, Greater Hartford Process. Soska has worked with Coleman ever since.

“He’s been a friend, a colleague and a mentor,” Soska said. “There are just so many people’s lives he touched.

“He was probably one of the most humble and self-effacing men I’ve known,” Soska recalled. “He was an inspiration and an amazing reconciler. For Moe, there was always a way he would find common ground. If there is one person we need today …”

By spearheading the Institute of Politics, Soska said, Coleman aimed “to create a safe place for people to discuss policy issues … and to make decisions based on evidence. It was always about civic engagement and the power involved — politics that you need to understand and … the power to make things happen.

“Students loved him,” Soska added. “You never knew who he was going to bring into class — it could be the mayor, it could be someone on the governor’s staff. People still always came to him for advice, even in retirement, for that sharp, analytical mind.”

He remembered watching Coleman in a crowd, greeting people with whom he had been active in Pittsburgh communities. “I was just amazed at the people he knew and shook hands with ... He just never lost the common touch he had. He was a man of the community.”

IOP Director Samantha Balbier, for whom Coleman was a mentor in her graduate student days at Pitt, said it was important to note “what a profound impact Moe made on his students and how masterful he was as a professor and an adviser.  First, Moe was patient and one of the best listeners that I have come to know. … He made every student feel brilliant; he reveled in class participation, walking the aisles, clapping his hands, laughing, changing the intonation in his voice as he discussed various power structures for us to consider.

“He also trained us to debate. … He called out our composure, our respect for one another, our use of facts, precedent and our ability to remain congenial throughout. … He wanted us to recognize that we live in such a competitive society that discussion was no longer about understanding the very people at our own table.  He wanted us to come to see, not necessarily agree with, but see the issue from all of its angles.”

In eulogizing Coleman, Mark Nordenberg, chancellor emeritus and now chair of the Institute of Politics, said: “By maintaining a commitment to values and processes championed by Moe — robust, but respectful, discussion and evidence-based decision-making, in particular — the IOP, as we call it, has remained a distinctive regional asset that stands as an important pillar of his legacy.”

Coleman concentrated his energies on the most important issues, however far they might be from the thoughts of most people, Nordenberg added, “for one key reason that sat at the core of his being — because they affected the lives of other people, most often people who were not among the advantaged. Moe cared deeply about improving lives, particularly when issues of equity and fairness were involved.”

Noting Coleman’s concern about the state of politics today, Nordenberg quoted from Coleman’s memoir, “The Search for Common Ground”: “Repeatedly, I chose to submerge my own strong political and social views in order to play a credible, neutral mediating role, because in most cases, I saw that role going unfilled. I believe that the need for such mediating influences is even greater today, as our political environment has become increasingly polarized, with both conservative and liberal perspectives becoming hardened by the echo chambers of ideologically skewed media outlets.”

Terry Miller, director of the Institute of Politics from 2005-2018, said of her long-time mentor: “He was incredibly approachable, and what made him approachable was that, in the grandest way, he was a servant of the people of Pittsburgh. He was a servant leader. He taught me, if you don’t worry about getting credit for something, you can get things done.

“He was remarkable,” Miller added. “No matter what the project was that he was working on, large or small, he would engage people so that they knew the project was theirs, and he would empower people.”

She recalled looking around the table at the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN), at a meeting concerning how it would be governed among its nearly 30 member municipalities. She and Moe Coleman were presiding, and when she turned over the floor to Coleman, “I remember looking around the room. As Moe spoke, the people sat back and they smiled. It was so obvious that they knew they were in good hands. He brought magic to the room. They knew they were going to make a difference in their home district, and Moe brought them there. 

“He was like the Mr. Rogers for grownups,” she continued: “Moe’s in the room, it’s going to be OK. It’s not as if he didn’t have strong opinions. But if you stayed at the table with Moe, you’d end up not only respecting his point of view, but respecting yourself.” 

Coleman’s son Jim, provost at the University of Arkansas, recalls his father as “one of the people who truly loved what he did.”

“He loved Pitt,” Jim Coleman said. “My dad loved mentoring students. He got extraordinary joy in seeing his students, and those who considered him a mentor, propel themselves into these spectacular lives.”

When he helped move his parents to a retirement home six months ago, Jim Coleman said, a large stack of Moe Coleman’s awards, from his years of service, posed a conundrum: What to do with all of them?

“His initial reaction to this pile of awards — my dad was a really humble guy — was, what did I do to deserve them?” his son said. “But as we went through them, it became clear to me that he thought, deep down, that he had made a very large contribution to his community, and that you can do that by bringing people together.”

Coleman retired as professor emeritus after several decades in the School of Social Work, which included a stint as acting dean, 1970-1972, and joint appointments in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the Urban Studies program.

The Morton “Moe” Coleman Award for Excellence in Community Service at the Institute of Politics recognizes “those who have followed in his path: … outstanding individuals whose leadership and efforts have advanced the quality of life enjoyed by the citizens of Southwestern Pennsylvania.”

He is survived by his wife, Greta Gold Coleman; children Howard and Jim; sister Phyllis; grandchildren Hannah and Aaron Coleman and Chuck McCumber; and great-grandchild Miles Vela. Memorial contributions are suggested to the Institute of Politics through the office of Institutional Advancement, University of Pittsburgh, 128 N. Craig Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15260 or The Pittsburgh Foundation, Five PPG Place, Suite 250, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.

Marty Levine is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.