By Carol Vaughn —
Many of us have that one teacher who made a lasting mark on our lives — if we are really lucky, we may have two or even three.
John Coates was that teacher for some of us who sat under his tutelage in the late 1970s at Broadwater Academy.
It was with sadness we learned of Mr. Coates’ death in Richmond on April 22, at age 74.
Mr. Coates, a Richmond native, had taken a job teaching high school English at Broadwater in 1977, after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arizona State University.
He arrived just in time to influence my class, the class of 1979, leaving such a lasting impression that he was invited to attend our 20th reunion in 1999 — which he did.
Some of us studied humanities as well as English under Mr. Coates.
I remember participating in heated discussions in that class, which was held in the typing classroom — the typewriters were a distraction for some of us.
He was a bachelor back then — my mother joked that he seemed to always know when to show up for a visit at our house, just in time for dinner. Well, she was a very good cook, and he knew it.
Mr. Coates became a friend of the family — and of other students’ families, as well.
His part-Husky dog, Gulliver, was his constant companion during those visits.
I remember him howling at the dog, who “talked” right back to him.
He named the dog after Jonathan Swift’s book, “Gulliver’s Travels,” having brought the pup back East with him from Arizona.
In his four years at Broadwater, before he returned to Richmond for what would be a long and fruitful teaching career — first at St. Catherines’ School and then at Collegiate School, where he taught for 31 years before retiring in 2015 — Mr. Coates challenged students to strive for higher educational achievements than many thought possible for mere high school students.
Papers he returned invariably bore, not just a grade at the top, but paragraph upon paragraph of comments, typically written in red ink. Students could tell Mr. Coates gave his full attention to grading assignments — and he expected students to do the same in completing them.
All of that Mr. Coates accomplished while living since his teen years with a rare and debilitating disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, which attacks the peripheral nervous system and which slowly took away his mobility, eventually leaving him using a motorized wheelchair. It ultimately affected his speech, also — which must have been tough for the man whose deep voice and bellowing laughter were a trademark.
Collegiate for many years provided him an assistant to allow him to continue to teach despite his medical condition.
As his obituary in the Richmond-Times Dispatch said, Mr. Coates “soldiered on without ever complaining in the face of every adversity, determined to forge a normal life and make every contribution he possibly could for the benefit of others, despite being wheelchair-bound for the last 30 years of his life.”
One interesting detail of his career is that Mr. Coates, who taught the upper grades at Broadwater, at Collegiate “began working his way back from 12th grade, grade level by grade level, in search of a sweet spot, a point at which his teaching method and style could have the greatest positive and most enduring impact on his students,” his obituary said, adding, “Through this process, he eventually settled upon 8th grade, and endeared himself to his students by drawing out of them what many observers considered college-level work while using classical literature such as Shakespearean plays as his vehicle for doing so.”
That last part encapsulates the Mr. Coates I remember. He saw students’ potential, even when they did not.
Mr. Coates received many accolades and awards, both locally and nationally, during his teaching career. Collegiate named its boys’ Middle School English award in his honor upon his retirement.
I am so glad that after leaving us on the Shore, he found his beautiful, accomplished, artistic wife, Lucy. Together they have three children and three grandchildren.
Our families visited back and forth several times over the years when the children were young, before life got in the way.
I regret that last part now. We did converse by telephone over the years — Mr. Coates was always the same thoughtful, intelligent person I had known back in the 1970s, always engaged and interested in what was going on here on the Shore, including what his former students were up to.
“John was ever smiling, ever encouraging to others, ever persevering and ever courageous in the face of every event life threw at him. He loved everyone and never wavered in his dedication to serving others. John’s life, his humility, his compassion and his character were an inspiration for all who knew him, and his fondest private hope was that the cheerful example he set for all might in some small way be paid forward by those with whom he came into contact,” his obituary concluded.
As Collegiate English teacher Weldon Bradshaw wrote in an April 23 essay on the school’s website, John Coates “embodied grace under pressure.”
A funeral will be held Saturday, May 1, at 11 a.m. at All Saints Episcopal Church, 8787 River Road, Richmond, Virginia, and interment will follow at 1 p.m. in Forest Lawn Cemetery, in Richmond. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, attendance in the sanctuary at All Saints Episcopal Church for the memorial service will be limited to 50 families or family groups, but live-streaming will be available both on-site at the church and remotely through links on the Bliley’s Funeral Home’s website, www.blileys.com
There will be no limitation on attendance at the interment in Forest Lawn Cemetery but social distancing and masking rules will apply.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial contributions be made either to Collegiate School or to Saint Christopher’s School, both in Richmond.