January 18, 2013: W.C. “Buddy” Coleman
This article on the late W.C. “Buddy” Coleman Jr. appears in the new issue of Talk Business magazine. Coleman was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1994. He will be inducted posthumously Feb. 15 in to the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.
Charlie Coleman remembers what would happen as a boy whenever his family would eat in a Little Rock restaurant.
“First, we weren’t going to stop if that restaurant didn’t serve products from Coleman Dairy,” says Coleman, a lawyer with the Little Rock firm Wright Lindsey & Jennings. “They would just have to do without that table of six. Second, as soon as we ordered, my dad would be up working the room like a politician. He wasn’t running for anything. That’s just who he was. He seemed to know everybody, and he loved people.”
“Dad” was W.C. “Buddy” Coleman Jr., the former chairman and chief executive officer of Coleman Dairy, who died in October 2011 at age 83. Coleman will be inducted posthumously Feb. 15 into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, the third major Hall of Fame in the state in which he has been enshrined.
Coleman was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1994 in recognition of his distinguished career as a football official.
He was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1996.
When asked what attribute set “Buddy” Coleman apart, Charlie Coleman says: “It was his personality. He never met anyone he didn’t already know or want to know.”
Whenever he was enjoying the thoroughbred races at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs – which was often — it was much the same as in a restaurant.
“He worked the aisles around his box,” Charlie says. “He enjoyed seeing people at the track and talking to them. But he didn’t share many racing tips, not even with his own sons.”
The other three sons of “Buddy” Coleman are Walt, Bob and Cherb.
Walt Coleman, who is well-known nationally as an NFL referee, shares Charlie’s assessment of their father.
“His greatest asset was the way he cared about people,” Walt says. “Everybody was a friend. We would go places, and he literally would visit with everyone in the room. If you’re selling products for a living, that’s obviously a good personality trait to have. He had a genuine interest in what other people were thinking.”
The Coleman story in Arkansas began during the Civil War in 1862 when Eleithet B. Coleman founded Coleman Dairy. The family owned a 200-acre dairy farm along Coleman Creek in Little Rock, near the intersection of what’s now University and Asher avenues.
“At the time he started the business, dairymen hauled their raw milk in crocks and poured it into whatever containers were brought out to the delivery wagon by their customers,” Ginger Penn writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Fred B. Coleman, Eleithet’s son, assumed charge of the business when Eleithet was killed at Seventh and Scott streets in Little Rock from a kick in the head by one of his delivery horses. Fred Coleman later passed on the business to his son, Walter Carpenter Coleman.”
Fred Coleman had joined the business in 1877 with W.C. Coleman Sr. taking over 40 years later. W.C. Coleman Sr. convinced his oldest son, Herbert Smith “Boots” Coleman, to join the family business in 1938 rather than becoming a football coach. They installed pasteurizing equipment in 1939 so they also could operate a processing facility. A new dairy plant was constructed on the family farm at 5801 Asher Ave. in 1946. By 1948, most of the family’s milk cows had been sold, with Coleman Dairy buying milk for processing from farmers across Arkansas. A major expansion occurred with the 1948 purchase of the C.S. Douglas Dairy.
The family did continue to keep a few cows on the property, largely for show.
“I tell people I was raised on a farm,” Bob Coleman recently told a television interviewer. “And they all laugh at me and say, ‘No you weren’t. You were raised on Asher and University.’ But we had chickens, pigs, horses and cows. So what do you call that? It’s a farm.”
“Boots” was 13 years older than his brother “Buddy.” After graduating from what was then Little Rock High School, “Buddy” Coleman decided to attend college at LSU and play baseball.
“My dad was not a big fellow, and he didn’t want to play football in college,” Walt says. “The University of Arkansas was going to require him to play both football and baseball in order to get a scholarship there. LSU said he only had to play baseball, which was all he wanted to do.”
Following his graduation from LSU with a business degree and two years of service in the U.S. Air Force, “Buddy” Coleman returned to Little Rock in 1953 to join his brother in the dairy business. “Buddy” was named the company’s president in 1964 with “Boots” serving as chairman. “Boots” died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1971, leaving “Buddy” as chairman and CEO.
“Because of his personality, my dad had focused on the sales end of things before his brother died,” Walt says. “He did things like getting more schools to buy Coleman milk and ice cream for their lunch programs. Beginning in 1971, he had to focus on every aspect of the operation. It all fell on his shoulders when ‘Boots’ died.”
At a time when there were dozens of independent dairies scattered across Arkansas, Coleman Dairy was known as an innovator. Television was new in the 1950s, but “Boots” and “Buddy” Coleman became major sponsors of the “Annie Oakley Show,” which starred Arkansas native Gail Davis. Due to the two brothers’ interest in sports, the dairy also sponsored numerous baseball teams and other youth sports activities.
“Dad loved coaching baseball and had American Legion teams that won state championships in 1957 and 1959,” Walt says. “He also was involved in AAU sports such as boxing and was a timer at track meets.”
“Buddy” Coleman enjoyed his involvement in sports, but it also was a stroke of marketing genius. Coleman Dairy became associated with wholesome activities such as youth baseball. Arkansans also became accustomed to seeing members of the Coleman family in television ads each Christmas season. Louise Lueken became the television face and voice of the dairy in 1957. That relationship lasted 37 years. Coleman Dairy even became a sponsor of the Miss Arkansas Pageant.
“Dad loved going to the Miss Arkansas Pageant in Hot Springs each summer,” Charlie says. “He always sat on the front row. He wasn’t just donating money. He was there for all the breakfasts, luncheons and other events held in association with the pageant.”
Charlie says his father’s constant presence at events across the state was part of his business plan.
“Think of it this way,” he says. “People would go to the dairy case in the grocery store and look at the products. They would see products from companies they weren’t really familiar with. Then they would see things from Coleman Dairy and feel like they knew the family. They would say, ‘If something is wrong, I’ll probably see Mr. Coleman at something next week and be able to tell him in person.’”
Coleman Dairy continued to grow during the late 1960s and 1970s with the purchase of Dixon Dairy of Little Rock, Midwest Dairy of Little Rock, OK Dairy & Ice Cream of Pine Bluff and Ouachita Valley Dairy of Camden. In 1960, Coleman Dairy became a member of the Quality Chekd Dairy Products Association, which represented independent dairies across the United States and in Canada. Considered among the nation’s top dairy innovators, “Buddy” Coleman served on the Quality Chekd board for many years and was the association’s president for four years from 1984-87. He was one of only eight men to serve as association president during the organization’s first 50 years.
Quality Chekd had begun in 1944 as World War II still raged. Rationing of milk, cream and butterfat was the norm. A Chicago advertising agency was commissioned that year to create a common trademark to be used by respected independent dairies along with a package design and merchandising program. These smaller dairies wanted to be ready to compete when the war ended with what at the time were the nation’s three biggest dairies – Borden, Sealtest and Meadowgold.
“The fact that my dad was president of that organization for four years tells you how respected he was in the industry,” Charlie says. “He understood how to bring people together and come up with solutions to problems.”
“Buddy” Coleman also was president of the Southern Association of Dairy Food Manufacturers and the Arkansas Dairy Products Association. He was a board member of the National Dairy Council. In addition to his work on behalf of Coleman Dairy, “Buddy” Coleman would work high school football games as an official on Friday nights in the fall and often drive through the night to Texas in order to work a Southwest Conference game the next day. He was active in the Boy Scouts of America, the Little Rock Boys Club, the Salvation Army, the Little Rock Executives Association and the Little Rock Downtown Kiwanis Club. In fact, he had a 42-year perfect attendance record at the Kiwanis Club.
“I don’t know how he did all of that,” Charlie says. “I think I’m busy, but I’m nowhere near as busy as he was.”
Walt explains it this way: “He didn’t do too well when it came to sitting still. He wanted to be at some kind of event every night of the week.”
“Buddy” Coleman also was the chairman of Kiwanis Activities Inc., which runs the Joseph Pfeifer Kiwanis Camp for children. He served as president of the St. Vincent Infirmary Development Foundation and was named the Honorary Big Brother of the Year in 1975 for Pulaski County.
Back at the dairy, it was “Buddy” Coleman who coined the advertising phrase “it’s not just a job to us, it’s our heritage.” The massive consolidation in the dairy industry, however, would affect Coleman Dairy. The business was sold by the Coleman family to Associated Milk Producers Inc., a dairy farm cooperative, on Jan. 1, 1995. Three years later, Coleman Dairy became a division of Turner Holdings of Tennessee. And in June 2003, the plant moved from its longtime location on Asher Avenue to a spot facing Interstate 30 in southwest Little Rock.
Turner Holdings became part of Prairie Farms Dairy of Illinois, and Prairie Farms made Coleman a division of Hiland Dairy in 2007. It recently was announced that the iconic Coleman name will be replaced with the Hiland name for 2013, marking the end of a long Arkansas tradition. The company said the name change will save on product labeling costs and create a unified regional brand.
The four sons of “Buddy” Coleman have kept the family tradition of philanthropy and involvement in sports alive. Walt, Bob, Charlie, Cherb and their families donated $120,000 a decade ago for construction of a baseball field at Little Rock Central High School. Two years ago, the four sons gave the University of Arkansas at Little Rock 10 acres of what had been the family dairy farm for a recreation and sports complex.
Though the product name is changing to Hiland, the four sons will ensure their father’s legacy lives on in Arkansas.
“When we were raised, when we had breakfast in the morning, you had cottage cheese on the table,” Bob Coleman told KTHV-TV in early 2012 when the station did a story on the dairy’s 150th anniversary. “I don’t eat breakfast without cottage cheese. Cottage cheese and eggs and bacon is just unbelievable.”
Walt Coleman has buttermilk with chocolate chip cookies.
“How many times have you had buttermilk?” Bob asked the television interviewer. “Never. Young people will not drink buttermilk. … There are a lot of dairy products that have gone by the wayside because young people weren’t raised on them.”
For a certain generation of Arkansans, though, dairy products always will be associated with the Coleman name. A key reason for that was the salesmanship ability and personality of W.C. “Buddy” Coleman Jr.
- Rex Nelson