Philanthropist Remembered for his Role in Planning Coast Guard Museum

Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Vice Adm. John P. Currier shakes the hand of James J. Coleman Jr. before he presents him with the 2012 Coast Guard Spirit of Hope Award during the 2012 Spirit of Hope Award Ceremony at the Pentagon Library, Nov. 19, 2013. (DoD photo/Daniel Hinton)
Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Vice Adm. John P. Currier shakes the hand of James J. Coleman Jr. before he presents him with the 2012 Coast Guard Spirit of Hope Award during the 2012 Spirit of Hope Award Ceremony at the Pentagon Library, Nov. 19, 2013. (DoD photo/Daniel Hinton)

James J. Coleman Jr., a businessman, developer and philanthropist remembered for playing a major role in the development of the proposed National Coast Guard Museum in New London, died at his New Orleans home on Thursday. He was 77. The cause of his death is unknown.

Coleman, known as "Jimmy," was a native of New Orleans, attended Oxford University's University College and graduated from Tulane law school in 1968, the New Orleans Advocate reported Friday. He and his wife, Mary, supported arts and other institutions around the country, including the Coast Guard Museum in New London.

Besides purchasing Union Station in New London for $3 million in 2015 to help facilitate construction of the museum adjacent to the station, Coleman is remembered for the part he played in designing and fundraising for the museum since the late '90s. He had also, up until his death, been a longtime board member of the Coast Guard Foundation, as well as the U.S. Navy League, New Orleans. Additionally, he was chairman emeritus of a company involved in the handling and storage of bulk liquid products at 19 terminals throughout North America.

"Jimmy had a vision that encompassed not only the mission of the Coast Guard, but he had a sense of how it could be displayed and how it could educate to a broader section of schoolchildren and visitors from across the country and the world," said Dick Grahn, a friend of Coleman's and the former president and chief executive officer of the National Coast Guard Museum Association until last December. "He took a very broad view of the Coast Guard and its importance not only to the U.S., but to the world."

Grahn explained Sunday that because Coleman was a developer, he knew that the museum needed to be housed in an iconic building. Coleman then oversaw hiring the appropriate architects to help "translate his vision for the museum," which includes a waterside location on the Thames River near the New London Amtrak station.

"The importance of having a Coast Guard museum on the water is pre-eminent. You could put it in Iowa, but that doesn't give adequate regard to the scope and mission of the Coast Guard," Grahn said. "Jimmy recognized that and was also a proponent of locating the site in downtown New London. He recognized that as part of the campus for the museum."

Coleman served as the chairman of the museum association board until December 2018, when he was succeeded by Susan Curtin, a partner at Power Family Enterprises LP and president of the Kenrose Kitchen Table Foundation, headquartered in Westlake Village, Calif. Coleman was then named chairman emeritus.

The museum association, a nonprofit formed in 2002 to design and construct the museum, also oversees fundraising to build the estimated $100 million museum on the waterfront in downtown New London.

In total, the museum association, as of February, has raised about $42 million, including a recent $1 million gift from Lockheed Martin, which owns Stratford-based aircraft manufacturer Sikorsky.

Both the state and the federal government have also contributed a total of $25 million to the project, Grahn said, and an additional $30 million may also be secured from the federal government in the future toward the museum.

For his efforts to create the museum, Coleman was awarded the National U.S. Coast Guard Spirit of Hope Award, the National Maritime Historical Society Distinguished Service Award and the Alexander Hamilton Award from the National Coast Guard Museum Association, the Advocate reported.

"I'm just grief stricken," Grahn said. "I spoke with him on Thursday morning and he was elated with where things stood with the museum and the train station and his plans with that."

"(Jimmy) was delighted with the progress of the museum itself, but also, of course, with New London," Grahn said. "His spirit was contagious and he was a leader in so many ways -- civically, philanthropically."

"He was a terrific developer, not only in New Orleans, but in Newport (R.I.), and he wanted to bring that energy here to New London," Grahn said.

Grahn explained Sunday that the idea to construct a Coast Guard museum first came in 1999 when Adm. James M. Loy, 21st commandant of the Coast Guard, came to the Coast Guard Foundation stating that the Coast Guard was the only armed service that did not have a national museum. The foundation, agreeing with Loy, then decided to take on that project before appointing a museum association board to oversee it separately, Grahn said.

Louisiana shipbuilding mogul Donald "Boysie" Bollinger, who has since donated $1 million toward the project, proposed the idea to build a museum to Coleman in 2002 saying, "This should be our project, this could be our legacy," Grahn explained.

"Jimmy decided to then take it on," Grahn said.

Bollinger, like Coleman, is also an instrumental developer in New Orleans and helped develop The National WWII Museum. Bollinger serves as chairman and chief executive officer of Bollinger Enterprises and is the former chairman and CEO of Bollinger Shipyards Inc., which has built many Coast Guard patrol vessels. Bollinger could not be reached to comment Sunday.

"Jimmy was a true southern gentleman -- bright, articulate and caring," Grahn said. "He loved his family and anyone who met him would come out saying that he was a real friend."

This article is written by Mary Biekert from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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