A longtime history professor at Emerson College, where students considered his classes memorable performances, the Rev. John Main Coffee Jr. also was among the leading collectors of transportation tokens, and he had an anecdote for each one.
“Every summer, when I find a new token from some little town, I’ll do some research,” he wrote in a 1997 issue of the coin-collecting publication Numismatic News. “I’ll find out the name of the newspaper and of the current editor, and I’ll write a manuscript about a token and the service it might have been used for, mentioning the token-collecting hobby a little. These weeklies are starving for news and something like that is of great local interest. And the letters I receive! . . . I’ll hear from people who ran, or whose father ran, for example, a horse-drawn buggy service, who remember using the tokens.”
Rev. Coffee — a Unitarian minister who with Richard Wentworth coauthored “A Century of Eloquence,” a history of Emerson College — died of cachexia May 8 in the Coolidge House nursing facility in Brookline. He was 83 and had lived in Brookline.
A founder of the American Vecturist Association, a national organization of token collectors, Rev. Coffee spent more than 60 years editing the group’s monthly publication, The Fare Box.
In the Numismatic News article, he recalled corresponding with a woman in her 80s in Weatherford, Texas, whose father had run a transportation service. She encouraged him to visit.
‘He would perform in class as a storyteller and dramatize the event and make the dead come alive.’
“When I got off the train, there were newspaper photographers, the mayor, and the state representative,” Rev. Coffee wrote. “I was wondering who the celebrity was, and then I found out it was me! It turns out the lady I was going to visit was the town’s wealthiest citizen, and my visit was something of a sensation!”
Ken Provencher of Los Angeles, a former student and longtime friend, said Rev. Coffee was 11 when he started collecting coins, and moved on to a lifelong search for tokens.
He spent summers searching the country for them, Provencher said. Rev. Coffee, who preferred not to fly, traveled by train or car, and found that driving provided opportunities to explore small towns. He visited his mother in Tacoma every year until her death in 1991.
Rev. Coffee was not a “typical history teacher,” said Provencher, who was a student in his Bible history class in 1990. “He would perform in class as a storyteller and dramatize the event and make the dead come alive.”
His Emerson classes “were large, because his door was always open,” Jacqueline Liebergott, former president of Emerson, wrote in an e-mail.
“My math tells me he may have taught two-thirds of the students who attended Emerson during his time here,” she wrote. “The word on the street was, ‘Don’t leave Emerson without taking a course with John Coffee.’ He was intellectually challenging, and he had a good heart. We all have Coffee moments we share with others because the lessons of great teachers live forever.”
Before teaching at Emerson, Rev. Coffee was minister at the former First Church in Roxbury for 20 years. He was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1954. While at First Church, he formed a liberal religious youth movement and was president of a citywide ministers association.
Philip Pierce of Newton, who became a member of the youth group, said Rev. Coffee’s Brookline apartment was always open for students to visit.
In 1966, the late Richard Pierce, who was then dean of Emerson College and a deacon at First Church, invited Rev. Coffee to teach history at Emerson part time. Rev. Coffee became a full-time faculty member in 1970 and taught classes including Western civilization, religion in Eastern culture, history of New England, and history of the Bible.
“John became one of the most beloved teachers at Emerson,” Provencher said, “and a rare two-time recipient of its gold key for outstanding teaching.”
Most students never forgot Rev. Coffee, and many became lifetime friends, Jenn Kay Fields of Nashua among them. When she married, he performed the ceremony in his living room.
“John never had props in his teaching, just him standing in front of the classroom telling stories,” Fields said. “It was like he was performing.”
Rev. Coffee dressed “like a gentleman,” she said. “He was never in jeans or sweatpants, even at home, but dressed more like a professor in jacket, tie, and slacks.”
He was born in Tacoma, to John Main and Lillian (Slye) Coffee. His father was a US representative from Tacoma from 1937 to 1947.
Rev. Coffee attended public schools in Tacoma and Washington, D.C., and graduated from Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro, Va. in 1947.
He graduated from Yale University in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree, and received master’s degrees in divinity and theology from Harvard Divinity School in 1954 and 1956.
In 1948, he had become one of the founding members of the American Vecturist Association. From 1949 until shortly before his death, he edited more than 700 issues of the organization’s monthly publication.
Through token collecting, he met Harold and Louise Ford of Moraga, Calif. Their friendship spanned more than 50 years, and Rev. Coffee visited annually.
Harold Ford helped Rev. Coffee edit the “Atwood-Coffee Catalogue of United States and Canadian Transportation Tokens.” Ford estimated that Rev. Coffee had about 12,000 tokens, “the best collection of anyone in the United States,” and also had “a fantastic mind.”
Rev. Coffee, who never married, left no immediate survivors.
A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. June 18 in First Church in Boston.
“It’s important to note that John’s seriousness about collecting was always rooted in joy,” Provencher said. “He did not just collect his tokens and lock them in a vault. He enjoyed looking at them closely and thinking about their use, learning about America in the process.”