Q&A WITH ERIC COLEMAN ’69
Meet the Superior Court judge who, before joining the bench, served in the Connecticut legislature for a whopping thirty-four years.
When ERIC COLEMAN was in the sixth grade, he was invited to apply to the Ulysses S. Grant Scholarship Foundation program. Operated in conjunction with Yale, the program's objective was to identify and prepare promising minority students for admission to prep schools in the northeast. "The most important thing the Grant program did for me," Coleman says, "was to convey a sense of high expectations." Those expectations have propelled Coleman to ever greater heights — from a student at Pomfret and then Columbia, to a lawyer in the public defender's office, to a legislator in the Connecticut General Assembly, to a superior court judge. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You were born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut. Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing?
Growing up, I was very fortunate in many respects. The first of many blessings granted to me was my dad and mom, Julius and Rebecca Coleman, two very loving, selfless parents who preached education and hard work. As far as I can recall, I never wanted for much. Both my parents scraped together what they could in order to provide for me and my siblings. Sadly, at the age of forty-seven, my father became a homicide victim — I was thirteen at the time. Consequently, for a significant period of my childhood, I was part of a single-parent household. My dad’s passing was devastating. But I have managed to draw on his spirit to help guide me through whatever challenges I might be facing.
I understand that you were a Ulysses S. Grant Scholarship recipient. Tell me about that program and your particular experience with it.
Because I was a high achieving student, I was invited to apply to the Ulysses S. Grant Scholarship Foundation program in the sixth grade. The Grant program was operated in conjunction with Yale University, and its objective was to identify and prepare promising minority students for admission to northeastern region prep schools. After our public schools were dismissed for the day, Grant students attended classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays on the Yale Old Campus, where we received instruction from Yale graduate students in English, Latin, and math. I attribute much of my academic success to what the Grant program provided. Perhaps the most important thing that Grant did for me and my fellow grant students was to convey a sense of high expectations. For me and others, these high expectations served as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How did you find your way to Pomfret?
Had it not been for the Ulysses S. Grant Scholarship Program, I would not have made it to Pomfret School. I had heard of prep schools, but never in my wildest imagination did I think I would ever attend such a school. But I remember being called into the office of the headmaster of the Ulysses S. Grant Scholarship Foundation and he very simply said, “I would like for you to apply to Pomfret School.” And I don't know what else I could say other than — “Sure.” He encouraged me to go home and discuss it with my mother, which I did. It was quite obvious that she was delighted and very emotional that such an opportunity would be available to me. While I like to pretend that I had a choice, there was no way that she would have let me not go.
During the summer immediately preceding my first year at Pomfret, along with hundreds of other similarly situated young students, I participated in the six week summer institute hosted by the A Better Chance Program (Project ABC) at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. At the end of that summer, I spoke with fellow Grant student, Bob Sims ’69, who informed me that he also had decided to attend Pomfret and I remember thinking, "Hey, this Pomfret thing is going to be alright!"
What was it like for you as a young African American student attending a predominantly white boarding school during such a tumultuous time in our country’s history?
Intuitively, I knew that attending Pomfret was a good opportunity — one that many of my friends in New Haven weren’t going to be presented with. And while I knew it was good for me, there was still a little bit of reluctance. I knew there were many people back in New Haven who were trying to navigate the various challenges and pitfalls that exist in the inner city neighborhoods. I felt a sort of survivor’s remorse, I suppose. I remember that one of the first things I did when I arrived at Pomfret was to head to the library with my friend and classmate Johnny Daniels ’69. We’d known that there were African American students before us, but we knew there weren’t many and we were curious about who was the first. We searched through yearbooks going as far back as we could, and the first African American graduate we could find was John Irick ’65. Somehow, seeing him in that yearbook was comforting. I remember thinking — “Well, he was able to do it. So hopefully I can, too.”
Looking back, do you have any regrets from your time at Pomfret?
If I were to express any regrets that I had about my time at Pomfret, it would be that, as a so-called minority student, I didn't necessarily take advantage of the diversity at Pomfret. I sort of gravitated toward people that looked like me and came from the same background that I came from, and that's who I spent my time with. I think, in taking that approach, perhaps my white classmates didn’t learn as much as they could have learned, not only about who I am as an individual, but also about my culture and my community, and certain things that may be characteristic of Black families. They could have learned about these things from me, but they didn’t because I wasn’t generous enough or astute enough to share those kinds of things with them. The Class of 1969 includes a lot of very fascinating individuals — extraordinary individuals whom I very much enjoy interacting with now. For whatever reason, I just took them for granted when I was a student at Pomfret. Looking back, I wish I had gotten to know them like I know so many of them now.
I understand that you did very well academically at Pomfret. So well, in fact, that you were accepted into every college to which you applied. Is that correct?
Yes, that’s true. I narrowed my choices to Yale University and Columbia University. Being born and raised in New Haven, I wanted to experience someplace else. I was inclined toward Columbia, because I liked the idea of going to school in New York City, and I was particularly intrigued by Columbia's proximity to Harlem. In addition to location, I was aware that some people whom I admired had graduated from Columbia, including my model Renaissance man, Paul Robeson; distinguished grant alumnus, Flemming Norcott; and Pomfret faculty member, Hagop Merjian. Somewhat ironically, it was Mr. Merjian in his role as college admissions counselor who attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade me that Yale would be the better choice for me. Notwithstanding the well-intentioned advice of Merjian and others, I chose Columbia.
After you graduated from Columbia, you spent a year teaching. Tell me about that.
While law was always something I wanted to do, I decided the best thing I could do was to take a year off from school between graduation from college and the start of a graduate program, whatever it turned out to be. During that year, I returned to New Haven and worked as a counselor and school teacher with the Connecticut Department of Corrections. I helped inmates obtain GEDs and I developed a program where inmates could earn college credits through courses of independent study.
You said that law was something you always wanted to do. What was it that drew you to that?
My mother had a great deal of influence on me. And I remember as a young child — probably eight years old — to make ends meet, my mother would do hair on Saturdays. Women would stop by and she would straighten their hair with a hot comb and style it, and they would give her a couple of dollars. One Saturday, I happened to be in my room, which was located just outside the kitchen of our shotgun house. These ladies were there, drinking tea and getting their hair straightened and talking about their aspirations for their children, and I heard my mother’s voice saying, “It would be nice if Gary [Eric’s older brother] became a doctor, and Eric became a lawyer.” So I, who continually tried to make my mother happy, as I did when I went to Pomfret and then to Columbia, thought — “I’m no lawyer, but if that’s what she wants I’ll try to do it.” Ultimately, I found studying law to be challenging and enjoyable in a way I cannot quite explain.
Tell me about your first job out of law school.
After I graduated law school, I had an opportunity to work for Hartford Neighborhood Legal Services. There, I primarily worked on civil rights cases, helping people with housing discrimination and employment discrimination matters. After about a year, I went to the public defender's office, which is a very similar kind of organization, but the specialty of the public defender's office is criminal defense. So I was helping people accused of criminal offenses by providing them with legal assistance. And I knew there were a lot of good people who were incarcerated merely because they didn’t have the money to mount a defense to charges that may have been suspect. My orientation was to try as best as I could to help people that didn’t have the resources or the wherewithal to help themselves. I don’t recall how many jury trials I had during my time as a public defender, but I never lost a single trial. That is something I am very proud of.
How did you first become involved in the Connecticut legislature?
I first became acquainted with the legislative process and how the legislature works in the State of Connecticut when I was a third year law student at UConn. I became involved in the school’s legislative clinic and served as an aide to a state senator who represented the City of Hartford in the Connecticut General Assembly. Years later, when a state representative position became vacant, some of the same community organizations I had worked with at Hartford Neighborhood Legal Services approached me and urged me to consider becoming a candidate for that position. Having had a couple of relatives who served as members of the New Haven Board of Alderman and having had the experience I mentioned with the legislative clinic while in law school, I felt that I was sufficiently familiar with politics, campaigns, and the legislature. I became a candidate for the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1982. I ended up winning a Democratic Party September primary by fifteen votes, and a November general election by a much more comfortable margin. Consequently, I became a member of the Connecticut General Assembly, and I began serving as a state representative in 1983.
How long did you serve?
Initially, I thought I would be very fortunate to serve for about ten years and to do what I could to make a difference in that time. As it turned out, I found the activity to be very addictive. Sometimes you have a certain agenda that you want to accomplish during a particular session of the legislature, and you get some of those things done but there are still some others that have not been completed. So you say — “Well, I’ll come back for one more year.” And then you come back to a whole new agenda which includes those things that were not completed during the previous session and some new items. When you get to the end of that session, there are still a few things that you want to accomplish, and the cycle continues. When all was said and done, I ended up serving twelve years in the house and another twenty-two years in the senate.
Did you serve in any specific roles during that time?
In the House, I served as Deputy Speaker. In the Senate, I served as Deputy President Pro Tempore and as the first African American Chair of the legislature's Judiciary Committee. I chaired the committee when it favorably recommended the nomination of Pomfret alumnus, Tim Bates '66, to be a Judge of the Superior Court.
During your service in the house and senate, was there legislation that was passed that you were particularly proud to have supported or something that you played a significant role in accomplishing?
I was proud to have successfully sponsored legislation establishing Martin Luther King's birthday as a state holiday, legislation repealing Connecticut's death penalty, legislation banning assault weapons and requiring background checks for gun permits, legislation permitting the use of medical marijuana, legislation addressing the excessive use of force and misconduct by law enforcement officers as well as authorizing the use of body cameras by police officers and legislation creating a second chance society for ex-offenders in the State of Connecticut.
You retired from the legislature in 2017. Where did that next chapter take you?
By the end of the 2016 session, I was finally reaching the realization that — as much as I wanted to get everything done, there was always going to be more to accomplish. As I added up the years, it was thirty-four years that I’d served. I began to ask myself — “Is there life after legislature?” In January of 2017, I retired from the legislature, and in May of 2018, I was appointed to serve as a Judge of the Connecticut Superior Court. My first assignment was in criminal court, which I enjoyed a great deal. I’m currently assigned to hear cases in family court. Initially, I wasn’t sure I’d like family court, but it’s really grown on me. When people come to court, they feel intimidated. Maybe it’s my temperament, but I think I have a calming effect on people who are experiencing the court system, and that’s sort of gratifying to me.
There is a common theme of service to others that runs through your life. Why is service so important to you?
By purposeful design, my life and career have been very public-service oriented. My public service has been an effort dedicated to making a difference in the lives of others by creating opportunity for those others. Somewhere along the journey, I recall someone (perhaps someone at Pomfret) saying: "Greater opportunity means greater responsibility” and “To whom much is given, much is expected." Most of my endeavors have been with these kinds of sentiments in mind. I have certainly been given many opportunities, and I have tried my best to be responsible about giving back in ways that would make a difference in the lives of others.
Tell me about your family.
The greatest of all of my blessings is a wonderful family. I met my wife, Pamela, while at law school. She is literally the sweetest and most gentle person I know. I appreciate how supportive she has been in everything throughout our life together. We have three fantastic children. They are all adults now. Trevonn is a former player in the Arena Football League and has been on the coaching staff of three different Connecticut state champion high school football programs. Lamar is an administrator at one of Connecticut's state universities. Erica is a radio personality with one of the Hartford area's local stations. The Colemans have three grandsons. Additionally, my wife and I have shared our home with eight foster children, most of whom are now adults living independently and at least three of those now have children of their own.
To what do you attribute your success? Was it luck, hard work, a combination of the two? Or was it something completely different?
I think much of it was luck and good fortune. Much of it was hard work. Much of it was the generosity of people along the way, including faculty and administrators at Pomfret who lent a hand and assisted in my development. I can't ignore the influence of my parents and other people in the community, including my coaches and teachers — even going back to public school teachers and coaches. But there is certainly a considerable amount of hard work that's involved. And I happen to be a person of faith, so I think a strong belief in God and spirituality has something to do with what I've been able to accomplish. I guess the jury may be out on the issue of whether or not Eric Coleman is a success or not. I've done the best that I could to this point. And I'm happy with my life.