Waterman-Langone at Boston Harborside

580 Commercial Street, Boston, MA


John M. Coffee Jr.

November 20, 1928May 8, 2012

COFFEE, John Main Jr., of Brookline, MA, died Tuesday, May 8th, 2012, in Brookline at age 83. He was a Unitarian Minister, longtime Professor of History at Emerson College, and an avid collector of transportation tokens. He was born November 20, 1928, in Tacoma, WA, to John Main Coffee and Lillian (Slye) Coffee. He attended public schools in Tacoma and Washington, DC, and graduated from the Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro, VA, in 1947. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1951 and two master’s degrees in Divinity and Theology from Harvard Divinity School in 1954 and 1956. While at Harvard, John was editor of The Scribe, the Divinity School student publication. He was ordained into the Unitarian ministry in 1954 and was installed as minister at the First Church in Roxbury, MA. For 20 years at First Church, John was very involved in the Church’s youth group, “The Putnam Guild,” making lifelong friends with many in the group as well as others throughout New England who were members of the Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) movement. He also served as president of the Boston Ministers Association.

In 1966, John’s teaching career began almost by chance. The dean of Emerson College, Richard Pearce, was a deacon at First Church, and invited John to teach history part-time. In 1970, he became a full-time faculty member and taught a variety of courses, among them Western Civilization, History of England, The World Since 1914, U.S. Constitutional History, and History of the Bible. Fiercely devoted to his students, and outspoken against the Vietnam War, John was able to save many boys from the draft through his testimony. One of the most beloved teachers at Emerson, John is a rare two-time recipient of the College’s Gold Key for outstanding teaching (1987 and 1993). He is also the co-author (with Richard L. Wentworth) of A Century of Eloquence: The History of Emerson College, 1880-1980, published in 1982. After 39 years of teaching at Emerson, John retired at age 76, receiving the title of Professor Emeritus in 2005.

At age 11, John began collecting coins, an activity that led to token collecting. He became one of the founding members of the American Vecturist Association (AVA), the only national society of transportation token collectors in the United States. Organized in 1948, the AVA began with 33 charter members consisting mostly of bus drivers and a few numismatists and college students; since then, its membership has grown into the hundreds. From 1949 to April 2012, he was Editor of approximately 775 issues of the AVA’s monthly newsletter, The Fare Box. He is also co-editor (with Harold V. Ford) of The Atwood-Coffee Catalogue of United States and Canadian Transportation Tokens, now in its 6th edition (2007): it describes in detail, and gives the approximate market value of every known transportation token issued in the US and Canada. John’s other token-related publications include the books Automobile Washing Tokens (co-author Harold V. Ford, 1986), and Land Company and Real Estate Tokens (1991), as well as numerous articles. Until his death, John owned the largest collection of transportation tokens in the world. “The thing about tokens,” he once told Newsday, “is that they give you a wonderful sense of this country. A quarter is a quarter, no matter where you are, but a token from Ashland or Mount Vernon has a character all its own. It is a piece of history and a part of American character.”

A diehard traveler averse to flying, John drove or rode trains across the U.S. every summer for decades. He loved to explore small towns where he could collect and research old and new tokens. He was a welcome visitor of friends in California, and of his mother in Tacoma. Never married, John is survived by loving friends, students, and fellow collectors.

A memorial service will be held on Monday, June 18th, 2012 at the First Church in Boston from 1:30p.m. to 4:30p.m. and will include a reception.


  • Memorial Service Monday, June 18, 2012


John M. Coffee Jr.

have a memory or condolence to add?

George Patnode

October 21, 2018

Hello, My name is George Patnode i am 28 years old, from Arizona, and i am truly,deeply,and sincerely sorry about your loss. I did not know Mr.John Coffee but i am aware that author,Stephen King named his character in his book,The Green Mile after him and i am a big fan of Stephen King, The Green Mile was a touching and beautiful story and the John Coffey from the story is my favorite character. I send my condolences and as i said i am so sorry to hear about your loss and God Bless you all,The family of John Coffee, You all are in my Prayers, I will say a Prayer for John and his Dear family.
God Bless The Coffee Family.
Thank you for your time.
Sincerely yours,
George Patnode

Michael Ginsburg

November 23, 2012

Just the greatest teacher ever! If I remember only one thing about my entire education, it will be Reverend John Coffee.

Jeff Southard

October 8, 2012

Rev. Coffee was a huge influence on my life and I enjoyed his classes in every way. He taught me to forgive and sparked in me a keen interest in history. I hope that someone has his class outlines to turn them into the great mini-series they ought to be!

Dick Ryan

September 26, 2012

John was my Minister back in 1962-66 and had a huge influence on my life-as he did on the lives of many in LRY.

I have posted photos he took of LRYers who visited his apartment in the early and mid-sixties. Thanks to Dick Derby for doing the CD of the photos. http://www.facebook.com/#!/media/set/?set=a.10151138079863168.474792.797428167&type=3

Ella Rutledge

July 27, 2012

Some Coffee-isms that have stayed with me over the years:

**For a sore throat, drink tomato juice.

**When housecleaning, vacuum first, dust last (because vacuuming stirs up more dust).

**Always vote Democrat no matter what.

Stephanie Augello

July 26, 2012

Greatest teacher I've ever had. He was a wonderful storyteller. Whenever I use "pedantic" and "accommodate," I think of him.

Yosef Sa'ar

June 28, 2012

I had the pleasure to know John Coffee for over fifty years. In the 1960's, on his cross-country train trips, he would stop and visit at our home in Glencoe IL and later in Chicago. John was certainly my greatest inspiration in researching and collecting transportation tokens. There wasn't anything he didn't know on the subject of United States or Canadian tokens. That may be one of the reasons I specialize in tokens from outside of North America. A few years ago I visited at his Brookline apartment and he was still as sharp as ever. John, no one can replace you.

Charles Hodder

June 28, 2012

I used to contact him frequently whenever I stumbled upon a possible transit token that I couldn't identify back when I first joined the AVA about a decade ago. He was always firendly and quick to help. Unfortunately, I never got to meet him in person. He will be missed.

Pamela Boudrot

June 27, 2012

Rev. Coffee is the teacher that stands out the most from my Emerson years. He was tough, but fair, and by far the most interesting presenter I had. So interesting, in fact, that I decided to take my elective with him after taking Western Civ: U.S. Constitutional History. Rev. Coffee had the ability to make history come alive and have relevance to today's world. I often think of that class when I bring students to visit the Capitol, Supreme Court, Independence Hall or when I hear Supreme Court decisions. Many of his lessons carry on through me.

Leslie Kaplan Potashner

June 24, 2012

Rev. Coffee was the only person I knew that could sound imperious and ironic at the same time. He loved knowledge and respected his students -- wanting to share that love with them. In my History of the Constitution class, he once bragged that in his day, students were required to memorize the preamble. He laughed with such glee when the entire class sang him the preamble ala School House Rock. He also assigned us to read "Martin Eden," not that it had anything to do with the constitution, but because it was his favorite book. I hated that book, and wrote so in my essay. He gave me an A+ because I "despised it with such passion!" That was the greatest lesson I ever learned from a professor.