More than 100 members of the Pitt community filed into Shadyside’s Ralph Schugar Chapel on a frigid day last Thursday to pay respects to beloved faculty member and community organizer Morton “Moe” Coleman, who passed away Jan. 28. He was 86.
The longtime School of Social Work professor and founding director of the Institute of Politics made his mark at Pitt from 1969 to 1972, including serving as interim dean of social work. He left Pittsburgh to take a position as social work dean at the University of Connecticut and then returned to Pitt in 1980, where he remained active until just recently.
In the mid-1950s, Coleman worked as a community organizer at two Pittsburgh settlement houses, Irene Kaufmann in the Hill District and the Kingsley House in East Liberty. There, he honed the skills that would serve him well later on in city politics.
Coleman served as an aide to Pittsburgh Mayor Joseph Barr from 1964 to 1969, during which he was an architect of the city's anti-poverty programs. It was an era of volatile issues like desegregation, fair housing and Vietnam War protests. But Coleman, by then a skilled mediator, was a master at fostering communication among groups and he did so at hundreds of neighborhood meetings over the years.
“Moe was a connector,” said Tracy Soska, director of continuing education at the School of Social Work. “He could separate the people from the problem and find commonalities to brainstorm and build on because he was a good listener.”
As Coleman himself said in his 2015 memoirs “Finding Common Ground,” “Neighborhood organizing is all about giving a voice to people who otherwise might not have a seat at the table.”
Coleman continued to build bridges during his Pitt career by establishing the Institute of Politics in 1989. It was and remains a “safe place” for off-the-record conversation among legislators and other elected officials and community, foundation and business leaders. In his memoirs, Coleman wrote, “Few places exist where elected officials can ask questions or express their thoughts freely without fear of embarrassment. Ask a dumb-sounding question in a public setting and you could become a target for ridicule; come to an Institute of Politics forum and you can become better educated in a safe setting.”
An open forum on the School of Social Work’s website invites those who knew Coleman to post tributes. Former students are remembering him as a “masterful teacher” and “a trusted advisor.” Colleagues call him “an exceptional board member” and “a dynamo.” One former student wrote that she became involved in community organizing efforts in rural North Carolina due to his influence.
Gifts to Pitt’s School of Social Work in Coleman's memory can be made to the COSA Fund online or by contacting Tony Gacek at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-624-8604.
Memorial gifts to the Institute of Politics can be made through the Office of Institutional Advancement, University of Pittsburgh, 128 North Craig Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, or to The Pittsburgh Foundation, 5 PPG Place, Suite 250, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.
Read other columns and tributes on Coleman in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune Review.