Ex-Bomber Pilot Now Helps Guide CSUF : Coleman Fills Vice Presidency

Times Staff Writer

There are, perhaps, a million paths to the ivory tower of academe.

For Jack W. Coleman, the road to a university vice presidency was via B-24s, B-29s, B-50s and B-52s.

Coleman, who on Saturday became vice president for academic affairs at Cal State Fullerton, became a professor only after a 24-year career as an Air Force pilot.

“I was always interested in planes,” Coleman said in a recent interview. “I grew up in Kansas City (Mo.), and TWA was big there. I used to watch planes take off and land for hours.”

Dreams Become Reality

Wartime needs soon converted Coleman’s daydreams about being a flier into reality.


“During World War II, I enlisted as an aviation cadet,” Coleman said. “That was in 1943. I was 19 at the time.”

A year later, having won his wings, Coleman was sent to the European front.

“I was based in Italy in 1944,” he recalled. “We flew bombers--B-24 Liberators. That plane was a real workhorse.”

Coleman paused, perhaps reflecting on those long-ago bomber missions. A genial, soft-spoken man with still a trace of a Missouri accent, Coleman volunteered no war stories. The world was at war; it was not unusual for a young man to be risking his life flying a bomber on raids from Italy to Nazi Germany. “It was something we did as citizens,” he said.

High Casualty Rate

With a reporter’s prodding, Coleman elaborated. “Oh, yes, I guess there was a pretty high (casualty) rate. About 60% (loss of bombers) in a year, as I recall. We pretty much caught hell. We flew daylight raids. Munich, Vienna--industrial targets.”

Asked if it had been frightening to fly on such missions, with such a high casualty rate, Coleman responded, “Not really. I think the frightening part of a war is when you’re not fighting it. I think, at least in the business I was in, you were so busy that you didn’t have time to have it (fear) register. When you got back on the ground, and had some time, maybe, you might think, ‘God, where am I? What am I doing?’ ”

Coleman rose to the rank of captain. He was discharged when the war ended in 1945, and he returned to the Midwest. He entered Kansas University and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

“Then (after graduation) I was offered a regular commission in the Air Force,” Coleman recalled. “So I went back into the service. I stayed on active duty until 1966.”

Tracked Hurricanes

Coleman’s Air Force career included a stint as a weather reconnaisance pilot based on the island of Bermuda, with the duty of flying into hurricanes to help track them. In the postwar period, he flew the B-29, B-50 and B-52.

As he advanced in rank, Coleman was assigned to the Pentagon, ultimately being placed in the Air Force’s program for estimating costs of weapons systems. This was in the mid-1960s, when Robert McNamara was secretary of defense.

“By this time, I had earned my doctorate (in business administration) at Indiana University, and the Air Force was pretty much matching us up to our qualifications,” Coleman said. His duties included testifying before congressional committees about Air Force procurement.

Coleman retired from the Air Force in 1966 with the rank of colonel. That same year he took his first civilian professorial position, as head of the accounting and finance department at Texas A&M; University. Two years later, he was recruited by the relatively new Cal State Fullerton to become dean of the School of Business Administration and Economics.

Poor Location

“We weren’t any great shakes in those days,” he recalled. “Business administration was on the second floor of the library back then.”

Coleman, who is now 62, remained at CSUF except for a two-year stint as executive vice president at San Jose State University. He said that he and his wife “liked San Jose State but, pretty much to our surprise, we found we didn’t like Northern California and we missed Southern California.” So they moved back to the Buena Park area, and he rejoined Cal State Fullerton. Last year he was appointed acting vice president for academic affairs.

A nationwide competition for the permanent vice presidency job was conducted this year, and on May 23 CSUF President Jewel Plummer Cobb announced that Coleman had topped 118 candidates to win the permanent post, effective June 1. Coleman is one of four vice presidents at the 20,000-student Cal State Fullerton campus.

Cobb praised Coleman for helping the university achieve “the common goal of excellence regarding the educational experience here.”

Small Jokes

Asked if his unusual background as a career flying officer had been helpful in his academic pursuits, Coleman smiled and said, “Well, sometimes people have the wrong impression of what a military man might be like. I’ve had some questions about whether I might give early morning drills and things like that.”

On a more serious note, Coleman said that learning how to make flight command decisions undoubtedly helped him later in academic leadership roles.

“Going through what I did, I think, gives you a maturity, a discipline,” he said. “When you’re flying an airplane and an engine blows up, you’re not going to have a debating society about what you’re going to do about it. If you do, you’re not going to be there very long to debate it.”