Up Close With Robert Coles

"If I hadn't seen her being escorted into that elementary school by federal marshals with a howling mob of close to 1000 people shouting at her and telling her they were going to kill her, with the New Orleans police standing back and doing noth

That angry crowd some 30 years ago, and the six-year-old Ruby Bridges at the center of it, inspired a personal odyssey. For Robert Coles '50, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities, the civil rights movement introduced a moment of social reflection that continues still.

"This was the beginning of school desegregation in the South," Coles says. "I witnessed it, and I was horrified. That was the beginning of all my work."

This work, which Coles describes as his "intellectual wanderings," is a vast, multifaceted mosaic--a panorama embracing the realms of clinical research, social science fieldwork, writing and teaching.

But Coles did not plan his life to turn out this way: he describes his travels as as matter of "luck and chance."

If the Air Force had not stationed him in Mississippi, Coles would never have stumbled upon the angry mob in front of the Frantz School. If he had not met doctor-poet William Carlos Williams during his undergraduate years at Harvard, he would not have considered going to medical school. And if his parents had not read short stories and novels to one another while he was a child, Coles would not have developed a lifelong love of literature.


What those novelists write," he says, "about the ironies, the fatefulness, the chance, the circumstances that determine life, I believe it. I've lived some of it out."

Moral Reflection

Coles's field work began while he was a resident in pediatrics and child psychology during the last polio epidemic, before the development of the Salk vaccine. "It was then that I really got interested in what happens to children under stress," he says. "I was stunned by the moral reflection that I heard from these kids because a lot of them were facing paralysis and even death."

Coles's work with these children was his first effort at clinical research. This research was interrupted by his service in the military as the head of an airforce psychiatric hospital in Biloxi, Miss.

"The next thing I knew," Coles says, "I saw this little child going through a different kind of stress--social and racial stress. I was aghast, but I also was tremendously interested in finding out what was going to happen."

Coles spent six years in the South working through the civil rights movement to initiate school desegregation. The result of his efforts was the first volume in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Children of Crisis" series, A Study of Courage and Fear.

"I never thought I would write any books," Coles says, with a laugh. "But then I must have gotten an infectious disease."

Since then, Coles has written more than 50 books on such diverse topics as the Catholic workers' movement, a community of elders in New Mexico, and the moral, political and social lives of children. He has also written two volumes of poetry, which have received critical acclaim.

Coles was profoundly influenced as an undergraduate by Williams, and it has often been said that he continued the Williams legacy.

Moreover, his experiences travelling around the globe, from Belfast to Soweto to Albuquerque, have given Coles what he describes as a "wisdom." Speaking of the people he describes in his work The Old Ones of New Mexico, Coles recalls, "Many times my wife and I would sit with some of these elders in those small villages and think to ourselves, Lord if we could only have some of their thoughtfulness and goodhumor and stoic endurance and decency, then we'd be doing well."