always been characterized by characters. A professor who once walked the grounds of the campus and taught English
for some 41 years, Kenneth Coates was one of the legendary characters of the
A native of
Smithfield, North Carolina, Kenneth Daniel Coates graduated from the University
of North Carolina. After a few years of
teaching in the Tarheel State, Coates spent a summer in law school. After deciding he didn’t much care for law, he took a position as an English instructor at Wofford. He was married three days before he started his career at Wofford. That was in 1928.
Coates had a curmudgeon-ly (if that’s a word) reputation. He acknowledged that he was the “baby” of the
faculty, a position he held for years. When he came to Wofford, he wasn’t much older than his students. He took a master’s degree in English at UNC a
few years later, but never completed a doctorate. Coates quickly became involved with student
publications in the 1930s, helping to create an independent board of student
publications that still exists today. He strongly defended student freedom of the press and resisted any efforts at censorship. On four separate occasions, in 1933, 1937, 1952, and 1969, the Bohemian Staff dedicated the yearbook to him. Coates brought journalism and creative writing to Wofford, teaching the college’s first creative writing courses in the 1930s. He inaugurated the Helmus Award for student writing in 1958.
During World War II, with most Wofford students away from campus, Coates became acting
editor of the Spartanburg Journal, the daily afternoon newspaper. He also edited the college’s alumni
newsletter, which helped alumni in the military, many of whom were serving far
away from South Carolina, keep in touch with each other and the college. At the end of the war, he chose to return to teaching, but continued to write and be active in community affairs.
Having been the junior member of the faculty for so long, he suddenly became one of its
senior members when most of the older professors retired right after World War
II. He became part of the college’s institutional memory, defending traditions loudly and vociferously whenever he felt them threatened. He loved students,
and although some of his former students went on to become generals and college
presidents, he said he was just as proud of “those with small talents who have
gone out and have not made Wofford ashamed of them.”
One of his former students, William E. Rone Jr., became the editorial page editor of the
State newspaper, and on Coates’ retirement, devoted a column to his old
professor. Rone called Coates “a bundle of eccentricities clothed in a rumples, tobacco-flecked suit… He loves to talk, and he’s not above listening. If there’s a subject that bores him, I don’t know what it is.”
“’‘fesser Coates,” as he was known to generations of students, was a bundle of contradictions. Though a traditionalist, he opposed mandatory chapel and refused to attend as a faculty member, but
according to Professor Lewis Jones, lamented its demise when it was abolished. He would always be working on a proposal or policy for debate at faculty meetings, but got to the point where
he refused to attend. He always wanted to know what was going on around campus, so he’d sit outside the room where the faculty met and listen in.
After his death, his brother, Albert Coates, compiled many of the stories about him into
a book, which he entitled “My Brother, Kenneth.” (If anyone wants a copy, let me know. We have extras.)
The college collected “final lectures” during the 1960s, and in his, Coates advised his
students: Take time to be curious, but about small things that have a way of giving color and perspective and excitement to life. You will find your life filled with little serendipities if you take time to be curious.
Sounds like good advice.
Below: The "Eric Hoffer Hat Full of Peas" Award that Coates frequently gave.