First STEAM school in the county opened this year in Duluth on the site where Brooks Coleman started teaching in 1963 and where he had his first principals job.
Gwinnett’s Brooks Coleman: ‘‘Make your own luck”
By Carole Townsend
Brooks Coleman, Representative of the 97th District of the Georgia House of Representatives, is a collector. He’s a collector of treasures, but he also collects people, occupations and accomplishments. He’s a 77-year-young man, if mental acuity and his outlook on life are taken into account. An educator by trade (by his first trade, anyway), Coleman is passionate about both students and educators.
Growing up in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta and educated in Atlanta Public Schools, he has seen what hard work, dedication and a love of learning can do in a child, in a school and in a community.
“I learned a lot from my childhood movie heroes – cowboys,” said Coleman, whose hands-down favorite was the great Roy Rogers. One of the things Coleman learned from the gutsy men of the West was that you make your own luck; in other words, a person has to take action rather than waiting for luck to smile on him. I was asked onetime to fill-in for a speaker who failed to show for a Rotary Club meeting, not sure what to say, so I grabbed a picture of Roy Rogers and talked about the five things I learned from cowboys to make me successful. The rest is history, as Coleman now delivers a speech called “Most of My Heroes were Cowboys” all over the country – and with good cause. His love of cowboys has translated into a whole new career as a professional speaker.
Here’s an example: the legislator, a lively storyteller had a state resolution declaring Feb. 19, 1993 “Roy Rogers Day” in Georgia. Not long after doing that, he got the opportunity to present the award to Roy Rogers at a venue in Dallas, Texas, but he was sitting so far back in the crowd that he could barely see the stage. “I found somebody who was working there and explained to him who I was, and that I had an award for Roy Rogers from the Georgia legislature. Next thing you know, I was seated at the head table!” Coleman laughs. “See what I mean? Very often, you just have to make your own luck.”
Pictured: Brooks Coleman met Roy Rogers In Dallas Texas. He presented Roy with an award from Georgia. Left to right: Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, his wife, Jeannie Fricke, singer, and Brooks Coleman.
Coleman’s grandfather – another man whom he admired very much - was a painter by trade, laying down the very first layer of gold leaf on the State Capitol building in Atlanta. “I remember he said it wouldn’t stick, so they had to mix the gold with lead paint to get it to stay on there,” Coleman remembers. In other words, his grandpa didn’t wait for someone else to fix the problem; he fixed it himself. “My grandma used to refer to him as a decorator, but he’d say ‘nah, I’m just painter.’”
Brooks himself had his first job at 12 years of age, at a Big Apple grocery store. “I had to stand on a Coca-Cola crate just to reach the cash register. I got paid twenty-five cents an hour,” he said. Working for a living – sometimes, working hard for a living, was one of life lessons he learned from another hero of his, his father, Brooks Coleman, Sr.
The Bass High School Graduate, after attending Mercer University and briefly considering entering the ministry, decided to become a teacher instead. “Ours was a wonderful generation,” he remembers, recalling his path from child to educator to state representative. His parents and neighbors were all too busy making a living to worry about much else. The whole neighborhood was one big family.
“I remember as a kid, during WWII, hiding under my bed from the Germans when an air raid sounded.” He added that Peachtree-DeKalb Airport In DeKalb County was a German prisoner camp, a fact that likely only a few know today.
“We were all poor, but nobody knew it,” Coleman remarks, thinking back on the days of his boyhood in Atlanta. He grew up in a big house on DeKalb Avenue, but not because his family had money. That house has since been razed and MARTA tracks stand atop the ground. Coleman’s sister contracted polio during those years. “We didn’t have a car, but I remember my neighbors taking her to the hospital every day for treatments. We did that for one another. Back then, neighbors knew neighbors. We helped one another,” Coleman reminisced. Despite the hardships, Coleman remembers the pulling together of the community as the thing that made them all rich. He wishes that communities today did the same for one another.
Representative Brooks P. Coleman Jr. and Governor Nathan Deal presenting Maggie Helms with her diploma. Maggie was one of 19,000 students who received their diploma as a result of the passage of Representative Coleman’s HB 91.
“It was community, schools, faith, discipline, and the love of our country that made our generation so great, and I believe we will get there again someday. Think about it, this country is made up of immigrants, but most of the first ones came from Europe. Though first generation immigrants settled in separated communities with their friends and families, they saw that their children were the ones who were truly “melting” in the melting pot. Their children were becoming Americanized. Coleman sees the same things happening in communities today. Immigrants now come from all over the world. As is typical, first-generation immigrants tend to settle in communities with others from the same country or region. But their children, now that’s another story. Their children are blending with others in this great melting pot, and they are throwing off some of the ‘old ways’ for new ones. Coleman has seen the cycle, and he has faith that our similarities will far outnumber our differences in another generation or two.
So how did a man who first considered entering the ministry become a teacher, an auctioneer, a speaker, and then a legislator? “I never planned on teaching the little ones, the elementary school children, but I went where the need was greatest at the time,” he said. In fact, Coleman remembers a time when DeKalb County schools were the best in the nation, and he remembers a time when Gwinnett County couldn’t find teachers who wanted to teach in this no-name burg with 900 African-American students and 9,000 Caucasian students. Needless to say, he has seen a thing or two change over the years.
“It’s been said that good schools build good communities, but I believe it’s the other way around. Good communities demand great schools. That’s why Gwinnett is great, and why our schools are top-notch,” Coleman said. He was the second youngest principal ever hired in Gwinnett, and he remembers when things changed in the county as far as being able to hire the best teachers. “It was when Paul Duke had the vision to build a mecca for technology, for excellence, there in Peachtree Corners. That was a turning point for this county.”
Coleman was later promoted to Administrative Asst. to the Superintendent, Director of Middle Schools, Asst. Superintendent of Management, Planning and Public Relations. That’s right, Coleman was responsible for choosing new school locations (a full-time job in itself), but he also had a hand in redistricting and in talking to parents about the necessary changes. “I tell people I used to be 6’ 10” tall, but I’ve been chewed on an awful lot because of those redistrictings,” he laughed. Now he’s 5’7”.
In his spare time, Coleman earned his real estate license but found that he didn’t really care for the vocation as much as he had hoped. No matter. As a collector of things since he was a boy (he collected everything from Roy Rogers toy sets to stamps to animals – including a Shetland pony he won in a contest!), the man who can best be described as a motivating ball of energy found that he loved finding and restoring old clocks. As a matter of fact, he rescued one from the garbage at the State Capitol during Zell Miller’s time as Governor, and he and members of his clock club restored it as well as 42 other state clocks. The value of the original clock, he soon learned, came in right around $250,000. “I remember getting a call from the governor one night around 11:00 p.m. It was Zell, asking me if that clock really was worth $250,000. When I answered that yes, it was, he asked if we could have it moved into his office the very next day!”
Pictured: Brooks Coleman with the 1870s E-Howard tall case clock purchased by the railroad to regulate train movements from Atlanta to Chattanooga. Members of Brooks Colemans’ clock club and he restored this clock along with 42 other clocks owned by the state.
Although his duties of being a 25- year State House Representative keep him quite busy, Coleman still makes time and finds great pleasure in restoring old clocks. In fact, that hobby has made it onto the gentleman’s 10-year plan, which he wrote out in great detail at age 77. Being a professional speaker and auctioneer are also on that list; he currently travels the country doing both, and loving every minute.
What’s next for Coleman? Well, he’s already thinking about the 10-year-plan he’ll compose at age 87, and odds are, folks will be hearing all about it when the time comes.
Coleman received his Bachelor of Arts Degree from Mercer University (Macon), his Master’s Degree from The University of Georgia (Athens), his Specialist Degree from The University of Georgia (Athens) and his Ph.D. from Georgia State University (Atlanta). He has been honored for his service to the people of the 97th district by being selected to receive numerous awards by Gwinnett Counselors, Georgia School Food Service employees, Georgia Association of Educators, Georgia Charter School Association, Communities and Schools Education Association and the Professional Association of Educators. Coleman was honored this past August by having Gwinnett’s first “STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math” school named after him.
He is a member of Duluth First Baptist Church, he’s been past Chairman of Gwinnett United Way, on the Board of Gwinnett Children’s Shelter, President of Peachtree Corners Rotary Club, and has over 30-years involvement in children’s sports as a coach and official. He was the voice of the Duluth High School Wildcats football team for 45-years. Brooks Coleman is married to Mary Claire and they have a daughter Amy who is a teacher at Mason Elementary School. Amy and her husband, Stephen, have two children Patrick and Theresa. Coleman’s granddaughter Theresa attends Coleman Middle School and Patrick attends Peachtree Ridge High School.
(Published March 2017)