Publication Date

September 1, 1997


Public History

Editor's Note: As a new item in the Public History column, we will occasionally be featuring essays on eminent practitioners in the field who have been pioneers, role models, and exemplars.

I left Chapel Hill in the spring of 1971 to take a job with the North Carolina State Department of Archives and History in Raleigh. Having completed my preliminary doctoral examinations in history, I went to a position overseeing the collection and publication of the colonial and early state records of North Carolina. I was entering the "public history" profession without knowing it (no such term was in wide use then). My predecessors and mentors like Mattie Erma Parker, Memory F. Mitchell, H. G. Jones, and, above all, C. F. W. Coker never called themselves public historians during their salaried careers. They were archivists or editors or historians and were content to be known by one or all of those words. Even after the rise of various public history organizations later in the 1970s, that earlier generation eschewed the public historian label while smiling benignly (if skeptically) on those of us who embraced it.

My association with some of the "old hands" of that generation–people like Charles Lee of South Carolina, Leonard Rapport of the National Archives, or Miss (she scrupulously insisted on the "Miss") Carroll Hart of Georgia–invariably proved to be like my experience in the public history arena of North Carolina. That earlier generation was generous with both patience and advice but almost unconcerned with the near-obsession of my generation to stake a claim for ourselves as an enclave of recognized professionals practicing history outside of the academy–as people who eventually called ourselves public historians. Fred Coker came closer to accepting the public historian designation than anyone else I knew of his peers, but that willingness sprang more from a sympathy for those of us to whom it seemed to matter than from any need on his part to be "designated."

Charles Frederick Williams Coker was born in 1932 in Columbia, South Carolina. Reared there and in Franklin, Virginia, he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as his family expected. A campus landmark, the Coker Arboretum, is named for one of his relatives. Majoring in history, Fred took the bachelor's degree in 1953. He accepted a scholarship to study at Oxford University but returned to a private business in Chapel Hill a year later. From 1957 to 1962, he was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, leaving with the rank of captain. Like so many others who served in the Corps, Fred remembered his days there with a mixture of pride, fondness, and relief. After resigning his commission, he continued to serve as a consultant to the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia. Fred's home was filled with antiques, books, paintings, maps, and objects of the highest quality, among which his favorites were various framed Marine posters from the two world wars.

Fred joined the staff of the North Carolina Department of Archives and History in 1963 as assistant state archivist. While holding a full-time job there, Coker also pursued a library science master's degree from Chapel Hill and obtained it in 1969. Between 1966 and 1968, he published four finding aids: three for Archives and History on Revolutionary War pay records, North Carolina records relating to Tennessee, and Civil War records; and the Register of the Henry Clay Cochrane Papers for the Marine Corps Museum. Users of Coker finding aids discover a straightforward, lean approach to the materials being discussed. The historical context is accurate, descriptions uncluttered by jargon or excess, the organization clear. With these and other accomplishments, Fred became state archivist of North Carolina in 1970. Thus, on the eve of the decade that would witness the formation of the National Council on Public History, Coker had functioned in museums, archives, and publications as a recognized professional.

Of the many researchers who benefited from Fred's deep knowledge of sources, history, and archival theory, scores recount the same tale: Coker was formal in manner (until he got to know you well), precise in language (even when telling a joke), and never wrong in a matter of fact. Early in our friendship, I once challenged Fred's memory of a film released over 20 years earlier. Confident that I was right, I bet Fred $10 (which on my meager 1971 income was as foolish as it was audacious). We went to the State Library, pulled a film encyclopedia, and to my horror found that Edmund Gwenn, not Monty Woolley, had portrayed Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Fred refused my money, nor did he ever tell the two people who witnessed our wager that he won. To his friends Coker was a paragon of loyalty, generosity, and fun. To others, he could be a formidable, forbidding force.

That latter quality got some broad exposure during Fred's tenure as editor of the American Archivist from 1976 to 1978. I experienced some of his acerbity firsthand in 1977 when he published an article of mine. Fred informed me by phone of changes he was making to my piece. Most of them were improvements, but when I questioned one of his choices, he told me that his change was better and “that is an end to it.” I knew by the tone of his voice to let go and I did.

Fred left North Carolina in 1973 to join the National Archives and Records Service in Washington. He headed the Printed Documents Division until 1978 when he moved to the Library of Congress as head of the Reference and Reader Service Section of the Manuscripts Division. Now his job was just a short walk from his home on Capitol Hill. In Washington, Fred also directed the Modern Archives Institute and taught courses periodically at the University of Maryland and at The Catholic University of America. Earlier at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, he had taught archival administration. He also edited the first Society of American Archivists Basic Manual Series and became a Fellow of the society in 1976. In his honor, the society established the C. F. W. Coker Prize for Finding Aids in 1983. Since finding aids were Fred's first love professionally, the award is a fitting tribute.

More than any other public historian I knew, Fred was a model of professional practice. He was intelligent, informed, forthright, and practical. The only accomplishment I ever heard him boast of was about having moved the archives of North Carolina to new quarters in 1968 without losing a single record–an achievement any archivist would envy. He did not suffer fools lightly, but I have seen him be as gracious to a befuddled novice as he was pointed to a pompous professional. Fred once told me, "When in doubt, tell the truth." That maxim stood me in good stead through two dozen years in public history administration, especially when dealing with legislators, cabinet officials, and other "resource allocators." As archivist, editor, teacher, historian, Fred consistently sought excellence and showed others the way to do so. He offered the careful observer an example of high professionalism and good sense and of ways in which those qualities could achieve useful, worthwhile ends. More personally, where my own professional development was concerned, Coker demonstrated that one could respect, encourage, and learn from various elements of public history. Fred was as engaged by the processes of architectural history and preservation techniques as he was by the "new" documentary editing (and its fallacies) of Julian Boyd or the mounting of the National Gallery of Art exhibition on the age of Franklin and Jefferson or nascent "living history" interpretations at Colonial Williamsburg. His interests, his tastes, and his curiosity were catholic. The broader your interests were, the better the questions you could ask. And anyone in public history administration needed to be able to ask sound questions. Fred helped me to respect the full range of public history disciplines without formal training in most of them; he taught me how to ask the right questions.

Fred died of cancer before his 51st birthday in 1983. When I learned of his condition months earlier from a mutual friend, I phoned Fred immediately to offer my help. He thanked me, told me not to worry, and asked about my wife and children. After talking plainly about the bleakness of his diagnosis, Fred concluded by saying, "The prospect of death does not frighten me." Anyone who knew him (and even those who did not) should recognize in that statement the essence of Fred Coker.

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