It was a year of turmoil in American history and a turning point in the life of one junior student at Messick High School in Memphis.
As current state Rep. Jim Coley, Republican from District 97, remembers it: “(1968) was the year Dr. King was assassinated, I believe on April 4; then six weeks later Robert Kennedy was assassinated in California.”
And the list of impressive events that occurred in 1968 doesn’t end there.
Richard Nixon came back from the dead in politics, Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet Union and, as Coley remembers it, there was the “so-called” Chicago police riot at the Democratic National Convention. The year is etched in the mind of this 20-year teacher in Shelby County Schools.
“It was a tumultuous time,” he says. “It was very interesting with the war in Vietnam going on, and I was captivated as a young person who was developing an interest in current events and policy.
“I had a natural curiosity about what was going on, and I always enjoyed reading the newspapers, and I still do, keeping up with politics and surveying the news this way.”
The influences of 1968 were hardly a passing fancy for the three-term representative, who took over Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s seat in 1996.
Coley’s district stretches north and east of Memphis, including Bartlett.
“One of the things that is important to me is for kids to be able to assess what they are going to do with their lives so they can make good career choices.”
“While I was at Memphis State University, I majored in political science and history and continued to be active in politics,” he said. “In 1971, after the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was passed (giving 18-year-olds the right to vote), I was the first person in Shelby County to register. I waited down at the election commission from about 3 o’clock in the morning until they opened.”
Coley’s road to an education career was briefly sidelined by five years as assistant project manager of The Orpheum Theater in Memphis. There he developed his organizational skills on one of the original public projects that was part of the redevelopment of Downtown Memphis and included the renovation of The Peabody hotel.
These activities only whetted Coley’s appetite for issues dealing with politics and public policy, so he re-entered Memphis State with the intention of earning a doctorate in political science.
But eventually, he found that path a bit long to pursue, and instead earned a master’s degree in teaching.
He is satisfied with his choice, which allows him to be both educator and legislator.
“I’ve taught the last 20 years, and I’m still teaching,” he says. “I teach first semester in subjects like sociology, economics and American government. Then I come up here for the second semester.”
Coley’s practical experiences in education and politics have led him to propose House Bill 2167, which requires testing for high school juniors and college sophomores to help them choose a career path compatible with their abilities and interests.
The bill has been signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam.
“One of the things that is important to me is for kids to be able to assess what they are going to do with their lives so they can make good career choices,” he says.
Coley was exposed to the different kinds of interest inventories in graduate school and mentions the Myers-Briggs Typology Test and the Strong Interest Inventory as being influential tools that “were not available to me as a graduate and undergraduate student.”
“I want kids to think about how their personalities align with certain careers in terms of what they are going to do,” he says. “One thing I’ve found out over the years is that I could identify the ESIP type of kid. ESIP means extroverted, sensitive, intuitive and perceiving.”
Coley laughs: “These kids lay their head down on their desks when they are being lectured to, but they are good at doing things with their hands and are interested in things like carpentry or cars.”
Getting students headed in the right directions with regard to their careers is financially important to the legislator because, while his own tuition at the University of Memphis years ago was only $132 per semester, it can now be $4,000 or more for an in-state undergraduate.
HB 2167 is designed to complement The Complete College Act passed last year. This Act requires that funding from the state for colleges and universities will be based, in part, on graduation rates that are accomplished within a reasonable period of time.
It will be to higher education’s advantage for their students to have a good idea of what they want to do and can do before they begin college. HB 2167 aids in this goal.
“The Complete College Act funding formula is based on how many students complete their degrees, say over a four- or five-year period,” Coley says. “Obviously, the more successful the students are the more efficient the university will be.”