Exit Interview: William Coleman

The North Philadelphia native and attorney talks politics and history in his new autobiography

CHATTING WITH WILLIAM COLEMAN is like listening to your grandpa — one amazing tale after the next, and he says whatever he damn well pleases. The 90-year-old former Dilworth Paxson partner has served as transportation secretary, counseled generations of presidents, and argued groundbreaking cases before the Supreme Court. Before his stop at the Free Library on December 7th in support of his new memoir, Coleman recalled getting kicked out of Germantown High and endured a question about Jersey Shore.

EXIT INTERVIEW: In your book, you go into great detail about your childhood in North Philadelphia. I can barely remember what I ate for lunch yesterday. What set you on the path toward the law and politics?

WILLIAM COLEMAN: When I went to Germantown High, I made a good speech, and the teacher said I’d make somebody a good chauffeur. I [told her off] and got kicked out of school. Growing up, there was a certain amount of pressure for me to become a doctor, until I was taken to the hospital one day and saw an operation and I really felt that wasn’t for me. [laughs] Then one day I went over to City Hall and saw what lawyers do, and said, “You get paid for doing that?”

EI: You graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in three and a half years. Were you in a hurry to get the hell out of Philadelphia?

WC: I found out if you took 17 credits each year, you’d graduate in four years. If you took 23 credits, you’d graduate in three and a half years, so that’s what I did. But no, I enjoyed Philadelphia.

EI: Looking back over your career, is it possible to pick a moment you’re most proud of?

WC: I guess my highlight was that President Eisenhower decided there should be an interstate highway system, and in my administration [as secretary of transportation], we finished it. Working for Dilworth was good. I’ve always been lucky by knowing some Republicans and some Democrats, and each one of them at times would reach out to me to do something for them. People talk about the civil rights cases, but well more than half the cases I argued before the Supreme Court had nothing to do with civil rights.

EI: But cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Bob Jones University v. United States were landmarks.

WC: Oh yes! I felt even better afterwards when I read what the New York Times guy said about the [Bob Jones] argument. [laughs]

EI: He praised your work?

WC: Well, have you read it? It’s in the book.

EI: I don’t remember the quote.

WC: Well, find it. Read the whole thing. [page 306 reads, in small part, “The court can add the argument of William T. Coleman, Jr., to its treasury of proud moments.”]