In memoriam – William T. Coleman

Notes on the Death of a great Secretary and a great American, William T. Coleman

by Alan Pisarski


This weekend many of us in the Committee were expecting a pleasant occasion in which to note the 50th anniversary of the US DOT.  Sadly, we learned that morning of the death of William T. Coleman at the age of 96; one of the great Secretaries of the agency and a great gentleman. As the fourth Secretary to serve he was among the original leaders who gave the agency its distinctive character.  His life was filled with firsts and roles in many of the nation’s most important civil rights events.  His important achievements in transportation are almost a minor sidebar to those more dramatic events in which he played leading roles.  Yet in less than two years in the Department he accomplished an extraordinary amount – the I-66 decision, the SST decision, noise abatement policy, seat belts, deregulation and more.  His approach in transportation was very much that of a legal scholar. He would hold hearings on key issues ask for papers pro and con, listen to arguments, and would reach a decision – but not just a yes or no. He would personally prepare a document of tightly reasoned analyses explaining why he took the actions. Those documents often held up under intense scrutiny later in court cases.  His methods and documents are still studied in law schools as a model. 


As many of you know we are preparing a series of small essays and memoir pieces for the DOT 50th, by some of those who were present in the early years, for the History Committee archives and for the  National Transportation Library.  Several of the authors refer to the Secretary and his great stature. I prepared one on the creating of National Transportation—Trends and Choices and the hands-on role the Secretary played in that document – reading all of it at least twice. I had to justify every statement on many pages where he jotted his comments and questions. I recalled in my note how he would always say: “Call me Bill!” and one always answered: “Yes, Mr. Secretary.”  Never was there a more patrician gentleman than the Secretary.    I believe he was pleased when, 25 years later, Secretary Slater recalled the Secretary’s work in Trends and Choices and said “remarkably, the future unfolded in many ways just as Secretary Coleman had envisioned…”  and although his health likely didn’t permit it, he would have smiled at Secretary Foxx’s recent reference again to the Secretary’s product in his policy study.    Among the articles we are assembling the most notable is the one authored by Ambassador Donald Bliss on the Bill Coleman style of decision-making. If you read nothing else in the assembled thoughts of those there at the beginning you will be well rewarded by a superb statement.  Don, a colleague of the Secretary for 30 years, assisted the Secretary in preparing his memoir Counsel for the Situation.  A splendid book about a splendid life! 

With greatest respect, Alan E. Pisarski

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