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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Albert Coates: paranoid, anxious, inconsistent

Esser profiles Albert Coates. Coates was paranoid and anxious, not a good manager, Esser remembers. He would let months pass without interfering in Institute members' projects, then suddenly swoop in, with crippling results. Coates's absolute dedication to the Institute made him question his staff when their commitment seemed to waver, but he did show flashes of generosity and appeared to support desegregation.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

GEORGE ESSER:
But I knew the man who started the League back in 1934, Pat Healy, in Washington. And Pat used to tell me about his perception of the battles with Mr. Coats in the thirties between the League of Municipalities and the Institute. And the resources were limited. We were fighting a turf battle. But Mr. Coats could go for months and sometimes more than that time without significantly interfering with somebody and then something would come up, an issue would come up and he would get involved. And sometimes he would mess things up pretty badly.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Really?
GEORGE ESSER:
Yeah. His involvement would mess things up.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Very emotional response to things, would you say?
GEORGE ESSER:
Very emotional and very paranoid. He was a very paranoid man. And he could take his fears about other individuals or other institutions and erect Machiavellian schemes for combat.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I see.
GEORGE ESSER:
And then call staff people in and talk for hours about this.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Really?
GEORGE ESSER:
And just lay out his schemes. Even if you didn't agree with him, he didn't hear you. And very often, we didn't agree with him. Now, some people could help him more than others. I don't know. But both Phil Green and Jake Wicker had stretches of serving as sort of the chief of staff for Albert Coats. And how they did it, I don't know, because in a position like that, he could be consuming of time. If you talk to Mary Green, obviously you can't. But talk to Peaches. Peaches is sort of bitter about it.
FRANCES WEAVER:
The hours he demanded.
GEORGE ESSER:
The hours and calling at all hours of the day and night. And he didn't do that for most of us.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Total dedication. He expected it.
GEORGE ESSER:
Or morning, noon and night, week day and on a Sunday. And you know, when I came he was astounded to learn that I was teaching Sunday school. And I said, "Well, Mr. Coats, it means a lot to me." "What? I want the Institute to mean as much to you."
FRANCES WEAVER:
Was he jealous of your interest in the church, do you think?
GEORGE ESSER:
Oh, he was jealous of anything that took away. Now he wouldn't admit this, but he really was. He was jealous that took away from total commitment to the Institute.
FRANCES WEAVER:
He's done it himself.
GEORGE ESSER:
Yeah. And he wanted total commitment and he could not understand when there wasn't total commitment. And he didn't really understand that people sometimes wanted a break from that unremitting pressure. Now that didn't mean that the staff was not willing to put the Institute first. That was their job. First of all, you had obligations to your children. Mr. Coats had no children. To a wife and children. He had a wife but she was involved in everything he did.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Her life had been dedicated as well.
GEORGE ESSER:
And I will say this. when my father was very ill right after Christmas in 1955, I called Mr. Coats and I said, "I think I should stay here." "Stay as long as you think is necessary." And he really was good about it.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Generous about it.
GEORGE ESSER:
And you know, those things came first, but he didn't sometimes understand about children.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I bet.
GEORGE ESSER:
And he didn't understand about your desire to work with other people in the University or in the community.
FRANCES WEAVER:
What were his racial attitudes, George?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, I don't think they were bad, but they were subordinate to the Institute. And the first thing that I recall that happened was there was some sort of meeting somewhere other than the Institute and I think it involved law enforcement officers. But there were both blacks and whites there. And one member of the staff, Don Hamond, sat down with some of the black participants at lunch. And this really upset Mr. Coats. The building was finished and opened in '56 or '57.
FRANCES WEAVER:
That's about…. Yeah.
GEORGE ESSER:
And we had our first conference for newly elected municipal officials in May of that year. And in '57, you see, it was right after the Pearsall plan.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Right. This is early.
GEORGE ESSER:
So we had about a hundred people register and they came in on a Sunday afternoon. And there was no way of telling from the advance registration material, so a lady came up and she was a city councilman from Kinston. Well, I registered her and I assigned her a room and then I went to tell Mr. Coats. He was in the office that afternoon. Well, it was a real bad…. But you know, he survived it.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Afraid of the spillover? Afraid of the press?
GEORGE ESSER:
That's right. And you know, as an example of his fears: he once had a little money, a little Foundation money, and he used some of it to buy dinner and football tickets for a commission that was working with the Institute. I mean, someone like Spencer Bell. Well, Henry, what was his name? He was state auditor?
FRANCES WEAVER:
Oh, Bridges.
GEORGE ESSER:
Bridges was auditing the University books and he raised some question about the expenditure of those funds. Well, it just about sent Mr. Coats to the hospital.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Well, yeah. His integrity had been in [unclear]
GEORGE ESSER:
And the staff did not regard it as that serious, but he did. And I guess what I'm saying is that he knew that on race that morally he was bound to support desegregation, but politically he was worried that he would lose state appropriations if people recognized that the Institute was regularly serving, at that time, black officials. So it was tough on him, I think. He would have found it difficult, however, to have dealt increasingly with the black citizens of North Carolina in the sense that I did in the sixties.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I'm sure he would.
GEORGE ESSER:
And yet, I would think he was proud of the fact that dealing with those issues was coming from a former staff member at the Institute.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Ambivalent. And of a generation when the leap was very difficult.
GEORGE ESSER:
That's right. It was a very, very difficult belief. You know, I don't think that personally he had any really real bias, but professionally, he was out to protect the Institute and he was not going to let things like that interfere.