Richard Coleman, who died recently, was not the most eccentric person I’ve ever met but he was in the photograph, there in the second row bending the ear of George Horton, dressed in his customary raccoon coat and red high-top sneakers (who WAS the most eccentric person I ever met). George was notable hereabouts for appearing in the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade dressed as Jesus and leading a burro carrying Mary Magdalene, who happened to be a hooker George had hired for the occasion. But that’s another story.
Richard’s vocation, as I understood it, was knowing the labyrinthine pathways of federal dollars which he used to convert old buildings into modern uses. His avocation, though, was as the county historian and he was an indefatigable reader of newspapers and old records, aided by a sharp eye for decoding the elaborate Spencerian penmanship of the nineteenth century.
I met him when I was senior editor of Ohio magazine in the late 1980s and began finding essays stuffed under the back door of my apartment. I was surprised to find that many of them were actually good, and—huge bonus for historical rumination—usually entertaining. He wrote, for instance, of the first giraffe to arrive in town, sometime back in 1867, brought by the circus. The road in front of the college in those days ran under the railroad—a progressive move by the city so that people on the 3-C Highway didn’t have to wait for the trains.
Unfortunately, the giraffe didn’t clear the underpass and became wedged in, backing up traffic in both directions. The people weren’t waiting on a train; they were waiting on a giraffe. Workers tried to dig the giraffe out, then it rained, conditions worsened, and ultimately the wagon was taken apart and the giraffe, along with the rest of the circus, was paraded back out to a crossing intersection and brought into town in this roundabout—but wonderfully ceremonial—manner.
It was the end of the underpass, too, Richard explained, for the city filled in the underpass and the roadway went up over the tracks, which is the way it is today and, as Richard wrote, “you wait for trains to cross because of a giraffe.”
Richard had been everywhere, never met a stranger, and at the drop of a hello would regale anyone with conversation in his near-stentorian voice. The conversation was mostly his, of course, but being an entertaining fellow, you didn’t mind listening. He was quite good with interpreting history, too, although at the magazine, Richard drove our fact-checker into apoplexy. (One of Richard’s theories was that General Denver was gay when in all likelihood the general had a French mistress.)
Somewhere in his effects is a manuscript that is equitably memoir and county history. (It was one of the few things he didn’t try to stuff under my door.) “The Other History,” he called it. It’s a sprightly document, filled with illuminating moments and people long forgotten, written with Richard’s unflagging cheerfulness and good humor. In spite of its moments of facts-under-duress, I’m hoping it doesn’t go with him—and that it will someday see the light of print, Richard’s good voice still intact.