The Eulogy for Fred L. Coleman
December 4, 1933 – August 1, 2017
Fred Leonard Coleman was born on December 4, 1933 in Philadelphia, the third child born to Fred and Hilda Coleman. Fred was preceded in birth by his sisters Thelma and Marion. When Fred was one year old, the family moved to New York City, where five more Colemans were born: Lolita, Stanley, Rudy, Bobby and Leon. The family first lived in Manhattan where Fred’s father worked as a policeman, moving to the Bronx when Fred was six. Fred remembered his life in the Bronx fondly, enjoying the companionship of his brothers and sisters, as well as the many friends he made.
Graduating from high school in 1951, Fred enlisted in the Signal Corp of the Artillery in the Army. He was first assigned to Fort Dix, after which he received training in Personnel Administration at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. Fred worked in Operations Intelligence with Top Secret Clearance, including six months at the North Pole which led to Fred’s life-long distaste for the cold. After three years of service to his country, Fred was discharged in 1954.
Fred married Katherine Roberts in 1951 who gave birth to Fred’s son Leonard and daughter Valerie. Sadly, Katherine died in 1955 of cancer leaving Fred a widower and the single father of two small children. Two years after Katherine’s death Fred married Jeri Smith in 1957, and although the marriage ended in divorce in 1960, the marriage did produce Fred’s daughter Vicky. Fred also adopted Jeri’s two children, Anthony and Patrice.
Fred began working for Dell Publishing in Pine Brook, NJ in 1956. Weary of the commute from the Bronx, in the early sixties Fred looked for a place to live in Parsippany. Because of prejudice against the color of Fred’s skin, apartments that were available when he called over the phone would mysteriously disappear when he would show up in person to view them. Thanks thought to his well known charm and humor, Fred eventually managed to break the color barrier and rent an apartment on Baldwin Road, becoming, by his account, the first Black resident of Parsippany.
Before long, Fred was one of the most popular residents in town. Never developing an interest in cooking, Fred would get supper in local restaurants, particularly the Empire Diner. He had a knack for getting into a conversation with whoever was at hand, invariably getting them to laugh with him. Fred’s warm-hearted kindness and his wonderful sense of humor drew friends to him like bees to honey.
For many years he belonged to a bowling league, providing another avenue for making friends. Fred got involved in local community theater. At some point he began working at BASF in Whippany in data processing, which opened him up to yet again a whole new field of friends.
Fred developed a life-long passion for portrait photography, and with a particular fondness for the ladies, he would invite the women he met to pose for him while he worked his craft, covering his apartment walls with the beauty of their faces.
When she was 17, Fred’s daughter Vicky moved in with him, living with him for three years. She remembers how much fun her Daddy was. One of her favorite memories was the time her Daddy was going on and on about how he had developed the ability to hypnotize people. Vicky was adamant that he could not hypnotize her. And so he proceeded to demonstrate his ability. Fooling her father, Vicky pretended that she been put sound to sleep by the sound of his soothing voice. “All right,” said Fred said, “When I count to three and snap my fingers, you will wake up.” Which he did, but she wouldn’t wake up. He snapped again, and kept saying “wake up,” but still she seemed stuck in a deep, sound asleep. At which point Freddie freaked, afraid his power to hypnotize had been too powerful. When Vicky let him know she was just fooling, they laughed and laughed.
After his retirement from BASF, Fred began coming to our church invited by his friend Sharon Adam. We quickly learned what a blessing Fred was with his warm heart and his delight in sharing a laugh. It just so happened that the Sunday Fred professed his faith in the Lord and became a member of our church was Valentine’s Day of 1999, which in retrospect seems appropriate because it became a running joke that Fred had intentions of marrying pretty much every eligible woman in the Church.
But Fred was a bit of paradox in this regard. He was a perpetual romantic, constantly imagining his coming wedding day, while simultaneously being for the last 57 years of his life a confirmed bachelor who cherished his personal space.
Recognizing Fred’s gifts with people and the time he had on his hands in retirement, I invited Fred to take the position of “office minister,” sitting in the church office three days a week to receive phone calls and visitors. On a pretty regular basis people would stop by the office for the specific purpose of visiting with Fred. He listened, and counseled, a great many people with their problems.
He took his job very seriously, and consistently dressed better than I did, generally wearing a suit, so I joked about how he was my pastor decoy, and that if some crazed lunatic ever got it in his head to come to the church to shoot a pastor, I was going to point to Fred when the lunatic asked which one of us was the pastor, and was pretty certain, given the fact that Fred looked more like what a pastor was supposed to look like, that the lunatic would believe me.
I felt loved by Freddie, and think he probably would have taken a bullet for me if he was called upon to do so. He was so supportive of me. We laughed together, and I felt safe venting my occasional frustrations, knowing that Fred had my back.
He was also the person who most consistently voiced the opinion that God could be trusted in all things. I have a story I tell of a little God moment I had. I was in a bit of a funk, and I decided to leave my house for a walk to clear my head. God wasn’t feeling very close to me, and I thought to myself as I began my walk that maybe I should listen to the things I’ve often said from the pulpit about what to do at such times, which is basically to pray. So I did, asking God for some kind of sign that God was with me. About a minute later I came to cross S. Beverwyck Road, and there coming down the road in his “Fred mobile” – you know that old Cadilac with “Fred 1” on the license plate – was none other than Fred himself, giving me a honk and a wave.
And I thought to myself, “I got my sign.”
Freddie took pride and pleasure in the Coleman extended family, and enjoyed the reunions that were held in 1991, 2004 and 2011 in the New York and Philly area. His three children brought forth sixteen grandchildren into the world and it became difficult to keep track of all the great grand children and great, great grand children. Here at the church we got used to Fred standing up every so often announcing in our time for sharing joys that another baby had been added to the family. The children of our church also were altogether charmed by Fred.
So it seemed appropriate that Freddie should play Father Abraham in a children’s sermon I once gave. Abraham – the original example of trusting God – to whom God said look up at the stars and count them if you can, for your descendants will be as many as the stars.
Fred’s faith was on display when in 2001 Freddie had a major stroke, leaving the right side of his body significantly weakened. Tom Albert got him to the hospital and visited him every day there and in the two months of rehab that followed at the Kessler Institute in Chester. Throughout the whole ordeal, Fred’s positive, determined, keep-the-faith attitude was an inspiration to all of us, including the staff and fellow patients at the Kessler. When it came time for a graduation ceremony for those who had made it through the rigorous program of physical therapy rehab, they all selected Fred to give the graduation speech, and it was truly an inspiration.
Before long, Fred was back at his post in the Church office. He served in the capacity of “office minister” for over ten years, and as his health declined, it pained him to give his position up.
Fred’s family threw a wonderful surprise 80th birthday party for Fred, with our fellowship hall packed full of family and church friends. It was a great time, and Fred was truly beaming. You made him feel so loved.
As time passed, it was becoming harder and harder for Fred to get up and own the stairs of his 2nd floor apartment on Baldwin Road, so we organized a move to Brookside Senior Center where they have an elevator, and at least twenty people from Church pitched in to help get Fred and all his many, many possessions moved across town. He was happy there for a time.
Unfortunately though, repeated falls returned him to the hospital, and after just six months he ended up at Troy Hills Center. Fred had always made a point of telling us he expected to live to be 120, so it was very hard for Fred to accept the limitations that the decline of his body brought upon him.
Not surprisingly, he was a staff and resident favorite and his sense of humor became famous. Jack Walsh from our church visited him everyday and brought him cookies. Other church friends visited often as well, as did his family.
Fred didn’t live to be 120, but he outlived all seven of his brothers and sisters, as well as his son Leonard and daughter Valerie, and they were all waiting for him on the other side when he took his last breath on August 1st.
I think you will agree that rarely have you met someone in life who evoked so much laughter. Fred loved to laugh, and it was never at people – it was always with people. And there is a lightness of spirit that comes from laughter – a certain freedom from self-absorption. He invited us to laugh with him, and in doing so he loved us.
And we honor him by loving one another, sharing tears and sharing laughter, until we take our last breaths and meet together with Fred and Jesus on the far shore.
Rev. Jeff Edwards
Parsippany United Methodist Church