Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Eleanor Coffman, February 1, 2007

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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O'HARA: This interview is conducted by Adina O'Hara with Eleanor Coffman at her home in Paducah, Kentucky, on February 1st 2007, for the KCTCS Oral History Project. Miss Coffman --


O'HARA: -- you were explaining to me about Paducah Junior College and 00:01:00Paducah Community College, and go right ahead and --

COFFMAN: Paducah Junior College was started by -- I believe I'm correct -- eleven men, of whom Govriel Rosenthal was one of the biggest backers. And Dean Matheson came there in 1934, and in 1958 I became his secretary, by a fluke. He had asked me if I could take the place of a -- of the secretary that he had had for quite some time because she was leaving. And I said, "Oh, I really don't think I could do that. I haven't worked in years." And he said, "Well, why don't you come and try it?" I said, "Well, I -- ." Eventually I said, "Okay. I 00:02:00will do this for two weeks until you find somebody." That two weeks turned into 32 years.

O'HARA: Wow.

COFFMAN: But while we were downtown, we only had two people in the office. That was Sue Puckett and myself. And we did everything. We did the bookstore, we did all the registration, we did just about everything that needed to be done, besides my being secretary to Dean Matheson. And I'll say this as a funny. Dean Matheson was a procrastinator, (O'Hara laughs) but one of the most educated, finest gentlemen I think I ever knew. But he had a twinkle in his eye, and he could tell some of the raunchiest jokes. But he was a marvelous, 00:03:00marvelous teacher. And it is because of him, mainly because of him, that we were able to move after -- I believe when we moved from downtown we had 800 students. And there were two buildings, one new one and one real old ramshackle house. The physics class and chemistry class was in the attic, and they had a rope out the window as a fire escape.

O'HARA: Oh, my --

COFFMAN: Well, we -- as I said, Dean is the one that really got started with getting the property to build a new college. And this was done. We moved out there in 1964, and Royce Gregory at that time was the comptroller, and he did probably as much or more about getting the 00:04:00property than Dean did. But we moved out there in 1964. And I moved too and saw all this transition, and it was just wonderful. When we moved out there, we had the administration building, which was Bill -- I can't think of his name -- Carson, Bill Carson's home, which he sold to us. And one of the main reasons, I'm sure, that he sold it was because I-24, the highway, was coming through. But he gave us (Coffman laughs) -- us, I say us -- a wonderful price for it. And we had two buildings. One was the -- was named after Govriel Rosenthal; it's 00:05:00called Rosenthal Hall. And the other one was -- oh, gosh, here I go with names --

O'HARA: You're doing great!

COFFMAN: -- well, I'll have to come back to that -- who was one of the original beginners of the college itself. And we just had those two buildings. And then in 1968, they had -- well, before 1968 they had several different people come to advise Dean as to whether we should go with the University or stay autonomous. Well, it was a very, very tight vote, but it was voted that we would go with the University. And that was in 1968. I was still secretary to Dean when he had to retire 00:06:00in '68, because we went with the University and the age for retirement was 70. But he did go to Lexington and was on the committee to -- as a consultant to the Community College System, which at that time belonged to the University of Kentucky. At that time, the new president had his own secretary, so I was sort of in limbo. Well, I became the PR person. I did all the things for the newspaper and so forth and so on. And 00:07:00then John Cromwell was the head of the community service and continuing education -- the community college and continuing education department. And he left, and Jim Hennessey came in, and I became his secretary. And when he became academic dean, I became coordinator of continuing education and community service. And I was that until I retired. And I retired at the age of 67 and have been enjoying life completely since 00:08:00then. And I miss it. I miss the kids, I miss the people, but other than that, I didn't leave a thing there, so I don't need to go back.

O'HARA: Thank you so much, Miss Coffman. You've covered a lot of territory, and I did want to know about all of it, each area.

COFFMAN: Well --

O'HARA: I might ask some more specific questions about --

COFFMAN: Yes, of course.

O'HARA: -- each one. Since you were Dean Matheson's secretary from 1959 -- '58 to 1968, you can explain how Paducah Junior College Board and Dean Matheson ensured the college's financial and academic success. Did they go through some periods of hardship financially and -- but also I've been told they had an excellent, excellent academic program.


COFFMAN: Well, the academic program was wonderful. One of the programs, I think, of the nursing department, they -- their students passed their exam for becoming RNs. They had more of them pass than for Murray or UK. They were very, very well-known and had a wonderful academic -- as far as PJC, there was never any question about their grades being transferred to any of the colleges, Yale, Emory, Harvard, any of the colleges. And of course, transfer went to the University of Kentucky also, but of course, after we went with the University, there was no 00:10:00question about it. So --

O'HARA: Who ensured that those transfer credits would go? Was there someone on the campus who worked with the four-year institutions?

COFFMAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. There was -- well, they had the academic dean, and they had -- gosh, I can't think of all the different departments that they had. But they were very well-equipped for counseling and that sort of thing. And of course, they -- the ones that were in counseling are the ones that made sure the credits transferred and that PJC was giving the subjects and covering the subjects that were necessary to make the transfers.


O'HARA: They were accredited as well.

COFFMAN: Oh, Southern Association accreditation, there was never a question. Never a question. Even -- well, right up until now, there's no question that they're very well accredited.

O'HARA: Can you tell me some stories about those early years before the move, those early years at Paducah Junior College before the move to the new campus? What was the house you described? What were the facilities like? How many students? Did you have -- you mentioned some stuff about the attic and the classrooms.

COFFMAN: The first building was a Civil War -- well, it was three stories; the top story was the attic. It was three stories. And it 00:12:00was a wooden building that had been used by the army during the Civil War as a hospital. And then it was taken over by the YMCA, and the YMCA built a brick building behind it, which housed a gymnasium on the second floor and a swimming pool on the first floor. And when PJC took it over -- I don't know how many years the YMCA was there, but this was during the Depression. And the reason for starting the school was because people in this area, not just Paducah, but the whole area, could not afford to go away to college. And these men decided that that was going to be something that they could do, was to have a college here. And it was during the Depression, and they got PhDs from 00:13:00Chicago, from New York, to come, because they were out of a job.


COFFMAN: And it was during the height of the Depression. That was the whole idea for even having the college.

O'HARA: Great! I hadn't put two and two together until you mentioned that. But that's how they were able to get doctorate-level professors that were --


O'HARA: -- had such high academic status and standards.

COFFMAN: Mm-mm. Mm-mm. Yeah.

O'HARA: Wow.

COFFMAN: And then later on, it was also sponsored -- not sponsored, backed financially by the city. And then I've forgotten what year it was, they started to be part of the county. And the county and the city were both -- they both had taxes, and that is still going on. The 00:14:00county tax is still going to Paducah Junior College, which is an entity unto itself. Paducah Junior College has their own money, they own the buildings, and they -- the money is -- goes to enhancing things about the college, like faculty enrichment and that sort of thing.

O'HARA: Fascinating. To think that the board still, excuse me --

COFFMAN: Still does.

O'HARA: -- still exists.

COFFMAN: Yes. As I said, when we went with the University, we still had Paducah Junior College because we owned the buildings.

O'HARA: That is so unique. Now, you spoke about your experiences becoming the coordinator of --


COFFMAN: Continuing education and community services.

O'HARA: Thank you. So this is a great question for you. For a local community, there were cultural and economical benefits involved in having a two-year college. Some of the junior colleges have promoted -- have arranged for entertainers and lecturers to come in --


O'HARA: -- famous people. During your time, what were some of the interesting community service projects that you coordinated?

COFFMAN: Well, you're asking about the entertainment type. The Festival of Arts -- I'm not actually sure that that's when it started. Mary Yeiser, who was an artist and an art teacher, started this Festival of Arts and that's still going on. That is now called FOCUS. I don't know whether you've heard that said or not. But that brought entertainers 00:16:00in, like -- well, in the beginning it was more or less local or localized entertainment. But then after it became FOCUS, I guess -- I don't know whether it had an interim name or not -- but when it became FOCUS, we had people like -- oh, the Dane that's so funny and plays the piano. Oh, what is his name? I can see him as plain as day. And -- well, now I'm having trouble with names. Who is the one that always played -- oh, he played -- well, my brain is gone. My brain is gone.


O'HARA: You still have a -- you still are better with names than I am. I'm trying to help you out and not being too useful. (both laugh)

COFFMAN: Victor Borge.

O'HARA: Oh, really?

COFFMAN: Yeah, we had Victor Borge.

O'HARA: Oh, how neat.

COFFMAN: That's the one that I remember. But I'm just giving you one because it was that caliber, and it still is that caliber of entertainment that they have on the FOCUS program, which has been going on, I would say, probably since 1965, the year after we moved out there.

O'HARA: That's a long time.


O'HARA: Wow. To have that caliber.


O'HARA: What's so impressive is the speakers and the -- but also, what other -- what are some of the other things besides entertainment that 00:18:00you did in community service?

COFFMAN: Well, in community service, I did the continuing education courses, like engineers have to have continuing education. And actually I had the first television program from the University into Paducah Junior College that was for the ASME, American Society of Mechanical Engineers. And I had to go down and set it up by telephone with the University, and then it would come on the screen. And this was for the engineers. And then I had nursing programs; I had programs for the Secretaries Association. I don't even know if that is still intact, but it was accredited secretaries, nothing to do with the 00:19:00college education. This was strictly for the secretaries. And while I was doing the programs, I really ran the gamut. I had anything from cake decorating, needlepoint, Spanish, French, German. I even tried Japanese, but that didn't go. It was too early for that. But I had -- as I say, I just ran the gamut. I had, like, forty classes a semester of different things that we had.

O'HARA: Sounds like you were on the cutting edge. I mean, that is -- that's just incredible. This whole idea of the TV being -- you know, working with UK, did that sort of evolve into the whole engineering 00:20:00school that's out there now sort of thing?

COFFMAN: No, no. This had nothing to do, actually, in bringing engineering to Paducah. This was strictly for engineers who needed continuing education classes.

O'HARA: But it's amazing, the branch -- I mean you know, to make that leap to actually educating them here too.


O'HARA: Neat, neat. Well, you've talked about community service, continuing education. And of course, there were the traditional degrees that transferred to the schools. But you also mentioned nursing. And nursing was more -- was it more of a terminal degree at that time, I understand?

COFFMAN: Oh, yes. Well, the junior colleges --the community colleges are two-year colleges, so anything they took was terminal, as far as 00:21:00our college is concerned. They had to go on to another college in order to get advanced degrees.

O'HARA: So if someone got a two-year nursing degree from --

COFFMAN: It was an associate degree.

O'HARA: An associate degree. Would it transfer to a four-year institution?

COFFMAN: Absolutely.

O'HARA: Oh, okay.

COFFMAN: They were RNs, but they -- it was -- now, I'm not absolutely sure of this. They were -- it was limited. But they were RNs; they weren't LPNs.

O'HARA: Yeah, they were the full, registered nurse.

COFFMAN: Yes. Mm-mm. And of course, they had to take basic -- the basic courses for any college along with their nursing, you know, like math and English and psychology and so forth.

O'HARA: West Kentucky Industrial College is another school in Paducah 00:22:00that's got a very long history.


O'HARA: And they offered -- if I understand correctly, they offered technical programs to meet the needs of people who wanted trade work in Western Kentucky. During your tenure at Paducah Junior College or -- and Community College, were you aware of any coordinated efforts between this institution and yours?

COFFMAN: Before they went with the college?

O'HARA: Yeah.

COFFMAN: Before this transition into --

O'HARA: Before this huge merger.

COFFMAN: -- whatever the name of it is. I can't remember.

O'HARA: West Kentucky Community and Technical College. (O'Hara laughs).

COFFMAN: Sorry about that. It'll always be -- well, never mind.

O'HARA: I understand. Yeah. It's a long name. But I'm curious as to whether there was -- when it was a junior college or a community college, was there any coordination between the two of them before the merger in 1997?

COFFMAN: There was insofar as any of them could come to the college and 00:23:00take college courses. But they were an entity unto themselves. You probably have the history of them.

O'HARA: I did get some information on this separately.

COFFMAN: Okay. Well, we won't go into that then.

O'HARA: Now, you did talk about the -- in 1964 Paducah Junior College moved to its new campus. Can you describe any more detail how Paducah Junior College acquired the land and money to build the new campus? I know you said that another gentleman at the campus was involved.

COFFMAN: Yes. Royce Gregory. He was the comptroller. Before we moved from downtown, he was also with us, and he had a lot to do with it. 00:24:00Now, I don't -- I can't go into any of the details, because I'm not cognizant of them, and at this point I probably couldn't even remember if I were.

O'HARA: You're sharp, though. I'm telling you, you've provided a lot of interesting information. During the post-war years, Paducah Junior College requested that UK alleviate -- this is what I've found in some of the letters and minutes I've gone through -- alleviate the financial burdens of local taxpayers by transferring the school's -- by joining the UK Community College System. Do you know why it took until 1968 for Paducah Junior College to decide to become a part of the Community College System? I found some letters as early as the -- you know, the '50s when there had been some discussion.


COFFMAN: Oh, there was a great deal of discussion. They were -- I know of two consultants that were brought in, and they both said, "Stay autonomous." There was one -- well, I won't go into the one person that really pushed it. That's -- I'd rather not, because I was not happy about it. But it took only one vote to do it.

O'HARA: So was it a unanimous vote or --

COFFMAN: No, it was not.

O'HARA: Or just one person's vote to --

COFFMAN: To go with the University, one more than was necessary to stay.


O'HARA: It was a very tight vote.

COFFMAN: Yes. Exactly.

O'HARA: Okay. The relationship between UK and its community colleges was unique across the nation, when I compared it to other systems. And also Dr. Robertson, John Robertson, when I spoke with him on the phone, said it was, you know. There was a couple of other ones that were similar, but it was very unique. Could you recall what were the benefits and the drawbacks of Paducah Community College's relationship with UK?

COFFMAN: I really don't -- I really can't. Once we were with the University, as far as -- see, I was not connected with the ins and outs 00:27:00of that, because I was no longer -- Dean was no longer there and I was no longer his secretary, so I wasn't privileged to know all the things that were going on.

O'HARA: Well, thank you very much for sharing all this information with me. You have just valuable, valuable knowledge of several different periods in the history of this college.

COFFMAN: Well, in 32 years you really go through it.

O'HARA: Did you have any interesting stories, other stories than you've already provided, that you'd like to share?

COFFMAN: Not that I can think of. I just have made such wonderful friends, and I think the students seemed -- I seemed to get along real well with the students. I will tell you one thing. When we were 00:28:00downtown, we had an office and a hallway where the students had to go through. And if somebody dropped a paper or anything, I'd lean over the counter and say, "Pick that up." (both laugh)

O'HARA: Those are the memories that I want to capture. Those are the stories.

COFFMAN: Yeah. And -- oh, that's about it. I can't think of anything else in particular. I'm sure there are other things.

O'HARA: Are there any other questions that I have not asked that you wish I had. Have I overlooked anything that --

COFFMAN: I don't think so. I've just talked and talked and talked and talked.

O'HARA: Well, it's been very helpful, and I really appreciate your time, Miss Coffman.

COFFMAN: Well, you're welcome.

O'HARA: Contact me if you have anything else you want to share.