Tag Archives: History professor

Do you have a minute?

I met Joe Kolman when I was in seventh grade. He was the track coach at Briarcliff Mimagesanor High School and he came out to watch the new crop of middle schoolers running around the field during gym class. I posted a particularly good time that day and he stepped up to introduce himself and invited me to consider cross-country and track. I declined, of course, thinking track was for losers. I played baseball.

Coach Kolman was also a history teacher who had gone to Dartmouth. A small, thin man, with short, black curly hair, he had a five o’clock shadow that seemed perpetually in place. During the turbulent sixties, he was one of the few teachers who could connect with the students.

“Do you have a minute?” he would ask in the hallway as if we had somewhere else to go. Sometimes he just had a question; at others he’d suggest participation in a school club or activity or ask our opinion about the news of the day. He appeared awkward at first, but I quickly realized he was just someone who chose his words with care. In a group, he often hesitated out of a concern that others should have an opportunity to say their piece. He was always polite, always soft-spoken.

I never had him for history, but those who did loved his course. He was known for motivating students to think and speak for themselves and encouraging them to consider other points of view – he often assigned homework that challenged students to argue the opposite side of an issue they supported.

I forgot our initial conversation until my junior year when I failed to make the varsity baseball team. This wasn’t much of a surprise, by then. I couldn’t hit. I couldn’t throw. In fact, I’m stunned they let me hang around as long as they did. With nothing left to do for the spring term, Steve Pagnotta and I went out for track.

We had a small team. One shot putter, a few sprinters, a few long distance runners. I ran the 220 and the 440 sprints. We did poorly in just about every meet because we couldn’t fill out all the events.

Pags and I lobbied the rest of the football team – at least those not otherwise engaged – to join the team for our senior year. Suddenly, Coach Kolman’s track team ballooned with competitors (that’s an overstatement – we ballooned with bodies. None of us yet had learned how to be competitive). We had a full weight team – including discus. We had long jumpers, triple jumpers, pole vaulters – you name it. He was very happy.

We still struggled competitively. We had good athletes, but were such a small school that we lacked depth and it showed during the competitions. I remember one county meet where I had to run the 220, the 440 and the 440 relay back-to-back-to back. After competing in the first two events, I made it about 400 of the 440 meters relay before the bear jumped on my back. I struggled to hand-off the baton and collapsed by the side of the track. I was so tired I couldn’t get up after the meet. I just lay there until Coach Kolman realized I wasn’t on the bus and came back to find me.

After that, I switched one event to high jump (which if you’ve ever seen me play basketball is rather amusing). Surprisingly, however, I could jump my height at five eleven.

Once, we had a meet against Irvington and as the afternoon unfolded, we were tied in points. The entire meet would be decided by the high jump, which usually was the last event of the day. I had made a mistake early on by warming up with the lower jumps. When the Irvington jumper and I both made 5’ 11,” he had fewer attempts. If we tied, I would lose. I had to jump a level higher than him to win.

We had three chances to try for 6’. By then, the entire roster of both teams had gathered around the high jump pit. Everyone knew what was on the line. The kid from Irvington missed the first jump. So did I. We retraced our steps and tried again. He missed the second jump. So did I. They reset the bar for the third and final attempt. He missed. So, it all came down to my final jump. If I made it, we would win the meet. If I missed –

“You can do it, ” a voice called from the crowd. Inside my head I remember thinking, “No, I can’t. I’ve never cleared six feet.”

Suddenly, Joe Kolman was there with his clipboard in hand. “Do you have a minute?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I just recalculated the score and realized that we’ve already won the meet. You don’t have to make the jump. We’ve got this, but it would be great to see you clear that bar.” He patted me on the shoulder and left me to the jump.

Relieved, I took a deep breath and let it out. I squared my shoulders, took my three long strides and jumped for all I was worth. My right foot leapt high over my head and I lay back and rolled, trying to keep my body as flat as possible. I cleared the height with room to spare and kicked my back leg out to avoid the bar. The crowd erupted as I fell into the mat. By the time I climbed out, I was mobbed.

“What a jump!”


That’s when I realized that Coach Kolman had lied. I looked over at him from the crush of bodies and he just shrugged, an impish smile stealing across on his face.

Coach Kolman died on December 26th of last year. I learned about it on a FaceBook page devoted to his memory by some 200 of his students. Some I knew, Barney Rush, Jack Connell, Lise Glazier, Rich Mandelbaum but most were strangers to me from his a forty-year career at Briarcliff Manor High School.

At first, I didn’t recognize him from some of their descriptions or even the photographs they posted. He was an older man, no longer thin. His hair was white and longer than I had remembered. He wore glasses.

The more I read, however, the more I realized their memories of him were my memories. And it was clear that his life’s work centered on teaching the youth of Briarcliff Manor to love history and to understand its relevance to events taking place today. But much of what we learned wasn’t in books. He taught us to be careful with our words, thoughtful of other points of view, and competitive in our life’s endeavors.

He was a very, very, good man.

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J.C. & Me

To appreciate my fascination with the past, you have to understand how I was introduced to it.  It started with my older brother Jimmy in the fall of 1973.

“You have to take History 54.”  He was insistent.

“I can’t take that class.  I’m a freshman.  I’m supposed to take History 5 with Shewmaker.”

“Adams is going to retire this year.  And he’s only teaching two more classes.  One this fall; the other this winter. You should take both of them.”

“I’ll fail both of them.”

“It would be better than not taking them.”

So, I signed up for “History of the World Since 1919,” bought the single assigned textbook (of the same name) and trudged to Reed Hall to take a seat among the fifty-or-so upper classmen who deserved to be in the room.  I arrived early, which was lucky, as more than 100 people were crowding into the auditorium.  I remember thinking that maybe I had misread the course guide.

I had been fortunate to have good history teachers in high school: Doc. Farrell, Doc. Pruitt, and Ms. Koob.  Each employed a different approach to studying the past, but all were inquisitive, engaging and most of all entertaining.  Now that I was in college, I wondered how they would compare.


The room grew quiet as the first of Baker’s bells signaled the start of class. I heard the door open at the back of the room and turned to find an elderly man shuffling down the aisle with a tripod cane.  His hair was white and stood straight up from his head in what, at the time, was called a “crew cut” (a worrisome sign in 1973).  He wore a grey suit, with a black shirt tied to the top button.  What drew my attention, however, were the largest and blackest pair of sunglasses I had ever seen.  They wrapped around his face so that light was blocked on all sides.  (I would learn later that these were designed for cataract patients).

My brother is hazing me, I thought.  There was no way I could relate to this ancient relic.  Adams slowly made his way to the front of the class and sat down at a small desk.  He’s sitting down! I screamed in my head. He’s going to teach the class from a chair.  I wanted to strangle Jimmy.  I wondered whether or not I still could transfer out of the class, and readied myself for an hour and ten-minute snooze.

Once seated, Adams pulled out a stack of yellowed 3 X 5 index cards and placed them carefully on the desk.  Next came a huge magnifying glass, the rectangle kind my grandmother used for reading the paper.  He’s going to read them to us?  I groaned aloud.

Adams lifted the first index card off his carefully arranged stack, drew it before his huge magnifying glass and, lifted his head.  I had the distinct impression he wasn’t looking at the card.

And then, he opened his mouth to speak.

He had a voice that made James Earl Jones sound like Mickey Mouse.  It boomed across the room with such resonance and authority that it swept all of us into its embrace and transported us across time and space until we found ourselves in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles just outside Paris in 1919.  We watched a pale and nervous Herman Müller, the German Foreign Minister, blink into the blinding light of the mirrored hall before picking up the pen to sign what was called by his countrymen back home, the “Diktat.”  The treaty acknowledged German “guilt” for World War I and promised “reparations” for the damages inflicted on the allied nations during the war. The terms “guilt” and “reparations” took on an ominous tone coming from Adams’s mouth, as if they foreshadowed the dawning of the Apocalypse.  I would learn weeks later how much they did.

J. C. Adams taught history at Dartmouth College for 34 years. A 1970 Esquire cover story named him one the 10 best college professors in the country.  An expert in Balkan and Russian history, Adams was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and received his M.A. & Ph.D. in modern European diplomatic history from Duke. He spent a year in 1937 doing post-doctoral work in pre-war Europe and served with U.S. Army military intelligence during WWII.  He received the Bronze Star and one battle star before being discharged as a major in 1945.

“John made history come alive,” eulogized fellow history professor Charles T. Wood, when Adams died in 1986, “and his courses were always filled.”  Revered by his students, Adams also was renowned for his tough grades.   So tough that, Woods said, “His was a course that the seniors took in the spring after they had been admitted into law school.” (Italics added).

Exactly and hour and ten minutes after he had begun, the Baker bells began to chime again and Adams put down his last index card.  I, and my 100-plus classmates returned from our trip into the past to our classroom in Reed Hall, in Hanover, New Hampshire during the fall of 1973.

“Until Wednesday,” Adams’s voice promised.  I couldn’t wait.  Next: The Gathering Storm.

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