Hillsborough lost a remarkable person and one of the town’s leading and most respected writers. Harlan G. ‘Gee’ Coleman Jr. passed away Dec. 10, at his home. Coleman was a renaissance man of sorts, and is well known for his work as writer, editor, publisher and owner of, the News of Orange County.
“He was ready,” said Keith Coleman, Gee’s son. “He was ready to be back with his wife.”
The following is Coleman’s obituary, which he wrote, and a story about Coleman that was printed in February, 2017. It is worth noting that Pauline Newman, who worked at the News of Orange for 40 years, including years with Coleman, passed away in November.
Harlan G. ‘Gee’ Coleman Jr., 98, died Dec. 10 at his home. He was the son of the late Harlan and Frances Daniel Coleman.
A lifelong resident of Hillsborough, Coleman was active in the church, civic and business life of the community. A member of the Exchange Club of Hillsborough for more than 50 years, he received the Exchangite of the Year and the Book of Golden Deeds awards. He was also honored by Hillsborough Rotary Club as a Paul Harris Fellow.
Coleman was a member of Union Grove United Methodist Church and a veteran of World War II, serving with the U.S. Army Air Force in the ETO.
He operated a family business in Hillsborough for many years and also was editor and publisher of the News of Orange County.
Preceded in death by his wife, Anne Rogers Coleman, and his son Harry R. Coleman. He is survived by Bebe Coleman of Butner, daughter-in-law; Keith Coleman and wife Patricia of Hillsborough; four grandchildren: Amy Coleman of Butner; Sara Fitzpatrick of Raleigh; Jonathan Coleman of Concord; and Daniel Coleman of Charlotte.
A memorial service will be held Jan. 10 at 2 p.m., at Union Grove United Methodist Church in Hillsborough. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Union Grove United Methodist Church or the Hillsborough Exchange Club.
The following is a reprint of a story that originally ran in February, 2017.
Harlan ‘Gee’ Coleman: In and around the ‘Borough
Harlan “Gee” Coleman is as Hillsborough as they come.
Born in his family’s home on Queen St. in 1922, the only three years he did not live in town was the stretch of time he served the country in World War II.
After returning from the war, he got “hitched up” with Anne Rogers Coleman, who would go on to be his wife of 69 years, a marriage that ended only when she passed away in 2015.
The two shared a residence on Tuscarora Dr., where they raised their sons Keith and Harry.
Gee Coleman grew up helping out in his family’s hardware store, Coleman-Laws, and even ran it for awhile. After that, he got into the newspaper industry, working for the Mebane Enterprise in the 1960s to sell ads for its B-section known as the Hillsborough Journal.
“It was then that I started writing a column, called ‘In And Around The ‘Borough,” Coleman recalled on a recent afternoon in the living room of his son Keith’s house on Riverside Drive, where he now lives.
Eventually, that writing led Coleman to become the editor of the Mebane Enterprise, where he worked for five years or so.
News of Orange
Never good at getting away from his hometown for long periods of time, when the owner of the News of Orange came calling to see if Coleman wanted to work for downtown Hillsborough’s newspaper, he couldn’t resist.
At the time, the paper was between 4 and 8 pages, with a circulation of about 600. Coleman worked out of the space where the present-day Bona Fide Sandwich Co. is located, with just one assistant, Pauline Newman.
Coleman was selling the ads, writing the stories, designing the paper, and distributing it as well. His status as a one-man show came into focus one day when he asked Mrs. Newman about a particular detail in the paper and whether she liked it or not.
“She looked up and she said, ‘I believe that is your decision,” Coleman said. “That’s when I knew I was on my own.”
Not that he was complaining — he now says he was “very fortunate” to get to learn on his own, characterizing the freedom as a boon rather than a drawback.
The remarkable story of Gee Coleman and the News of Orange is that he eventually bought the paper in 1976, and owned it for 10 years, and the paper grew massively during his tenure. He brought it from a thin paper with a small following, to a 32-36 page publication with a circulation of 4,000.
With that, the staff increased from two to 11 in just two decades.
It was the golden age of newspapers, and Coleman took full advantage, even expanding the company to sell hardware and tools on the side.
As the mid-1980s approached, Gee and Anne were getting close to a normal retirement age, and they began seeking ways they might begin to scale back their working schedule. That’s when Charles “Zan” Womack approached the Colemans and “made them an offer they felt like they couldn’t refuse.”
The paper was sold to the current ownership group, Womack Publishing Co., in 1986.
Though always notable as the man who owned and ran the News of Orange, Coleman was a constant fixture in the community for a variety of other reasons as well.
In 1949, he joined the Hillsborough Exchange Club, and served two full terms as president. He was a member and served as president on the board of what is now the Hillsborough/Orange Chamber of Commerce.
If something historic happened in Hillsborough in the 20th century, odds are, Coleman was there for one reason or another.
He sold concessions for the Hillsborough Exchange Club at the Occoneechee Speedway when it hosted NASCAR races in the 1950s and 60s.
“I went to the first one and the last race,” Coleman said. “And every one in between.”
Coleman recalled at the first race running out of bottles of Coca-Cola before it even began.
“It got so when we ran out of ice, and we were just putting the drinks in the water and handing them out,” Coleman said. “We made over $1,200 that day.”
In 1949, $1,200 was quite a bit of money.
Later, Coleman would ride around with his friend and the ABC Liquor Chief of Police, Burch Compton, and assist in the busting of liquor stills.
“He did a lot of driving throughout the country to see new paths that had been established,” Coleman said. “He was real sharp on finding where they were, and I’d ride with him and see what was happening. He’d drive down through, find where one was operating, and we’d go back and get the sheriff’s people to go down and bust ‘em up.”
Coleman noted that in contrast with the thriving art scene in downtown Hillsborough these days, the artists of Hillsborough and northern Orange County back then were the those who built these stills, beautiful sculptures to a certain kind of person.
A Whole New Town
For all the talk about how much Hillsborough has changed, there is perhaps no one in town who is as intimate with how much it has already changed as Coleman himself.
“As many housing projects that have been approved, it’s going to bring that many more people in,” Coleman said. “And I don’t think Hillsborough can be the same. I think, with the growth that is projected, it’s just going to be an entirely different town.
“We’re going to lose the small town. I think we already have, to a degree.”
About five years ago – right around the time Coleman finally retired for good, after working from age 77 to 89 at his late son Harry’s weekly paper and printing operation in Creedmor – the town’s unofficial historian penned a column for the News of Orange that gave insight into what each building in downtown Hillsborough used to be.
It was meant to be three or four columns, but ran for almost a year and a half due to popular demand.
“People really loved it,” Coleman recalled. “I would go to Walmart and people would say, ‘Aren’t you Gee Coleman who writes that column for the News of Orange?’”
It was Gee Coleman in the flesh, in and around the ‘borough.