Ned Coll dies; activist fought racism, poverty and closed beaches
Edward T. “Ned” Coll, 82, the Hartford activist most remembered for his efforts in the 1970s to dramatize the lack of public access to most of the state’s salt water beaches, died Saturday after a long illness.
His death was reported by his ex-wife Leslie Hammond, who said funeral and memorial arrangements are incomplete. Coll had been living in a continuing care facility in West Hartford.
He had long been out of the public eye, the polar opposite of where he was four decades ago, when he was one of the most recognizable figures in the state.
Coll grew up in an Irish-American family — he was related to the late Irish President Eamon de Valera — graduated from Fairfield University and took a job with a Hartford insurance company.
But he was so moved by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November of 1963 that he left that job and formed a social service/anti-poverty agency called The Revitalization Corps, in the slain president’s honor.
Started on a shoestring, the Corps became a hands-on problem-solver. If people lacked clothing, food, fuel or a job, Corps volunteers would try to find them what they needed. If a child required tutoring, a volunteer would step up. Coll even ran drug dealers out of the city’s housing projects, not the safest of activities.
“He was so gutsy, he had such chutzpah,” Hammond recalled. Coll also recruited dozens of college students to tutor youngsters in North Hartford.
The Revitalization Corps model — flexible, no federal money or bureaucracy — seemed to imbue the spirit of the ‘60s and then caught on. Chapters opened in big cities and college campuses across the county, thanks in no small part to Coll’s keen sense of public relations and Swiftian wit.
For example, he was named one of the U. S. Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) 10 Outstanding Young Men of 1970, a class that included the reigning King of Rock ’N’ Roll.
Coll went up to him at the ceremony, extended his hand and said, “Presley, isn’t it?”
In 1972, Coll managed to insert himself into the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential primary, and in a debate held up a rubber rat to illustrate the problems of urban America. One commentator considered it the high point of the debate.
Back home, Coll was appalled by the poverty and racism that kept many poor Black people isolated in Hartford and the indifference shown by many suburban whites.
He wanted to confront them with the reality of the city-suburb divide, and what better place to do it than the wealthy towns on the Connecticut shoreline with private beaches. By the late 1960s, nearly all of the coastline was either in private hands or limited to town residents.
For several years starting in 1971, Coll gathered busloads of North End kids and drove them to beaches from Old Lyme to Greenwich, challenging officials to keep them from the cooling waters. Coll walked the entire shoreline to garner publicity for his efforts, even landing on a couple of beaches in a rubber raft. The media ate it up.
Coll’s beach campaign was the subject of a well-received 2018 book, “Free the Beaches, The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline” (Yale Press) by University of Virginia history professor Andrew W. Kahrl.
Though Coll brought attention to the issue, the person who actually got town beaches opened to the public was a Rutgers law student named Brenden Leydon, who was stopped from jogging on the Greenwich beach, sued the town in 1995, and won. He called Coll as a witness.
However, some shoreline towns have limited out-of-town beachgoers by charging them much higher parking fees than residents, a practice the General Assembly has tried to stop. Beach access remains an issue today.
Coll kept some of the Corps programs going into the early 1980s, but times had changed and so had Coll. He always had an ego and a temper, but now he became “even more stubborn and defiant and — to those closest to him — intolerable,” Kahrl wrote. His public appearances became “less frequent and increasingly bizarre and discomforting.” His razor-sharp wit “was replaced with anger and incoherence.”
He burned through key staff people. The chapters around the country quietly closed. The figure that once commanded the national spotlight was sidelined.
Hammond and others attribute Coll’s change in behavior to the epilepsy he endured throughout his life, for which he often did not properly medicate himself.
“When you consider the illness and the seizures, it’s remarkable what he did with his life,” she said.
Coll didn’t entirely disappear. He would sometimes be seen at demonstrations or on a downtown street corner with a handmade sign. Around 1990 he attempted a comeback of sorts. A devout Catholic, he rebranded the Revitalization Corps as “God Activism,” an effort to reawaken the country by introducing God into public life. The effort never gained the traction the Corps did in its early years.
Coll inspired others to join his cause.
One was Hartford activist Warren Hardy. “Ned shared his wisdom and knowledge with me. He was a mentor and motivator in my life,” Hardy said.
“He had soul.”