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Coats, John Balfour Symington

John Coats
                                  John Coats

(1906-1979). Sixth President of the Theosophical Society (TS). Coats was born in Paisley, Scotland, in Sundrum Castle into a family of five brothers and a sister and was educated at Eton College. His family sent him to France for eighteen months to learn French after which period he worked in the business of J. & P. Coats at their Glasgow office. In 1928 he was transferred to the Vienna branch of the company where he worked for about three years, during which time he learned German. In 1931 Coats resigned his position in Vienna to commence work in London at the Stock Exchange and it was there that he met his future wife, Betsan Horlick.

Coats returned to Vienna in 1932 on business and it was there that he had his first contact with theosophy through a casual conversation in a café. Returning to England in October 1932, he joined the TS on November 2, 1932. He married on October 31, 1933, and then he and his wife began a joint interest in theosophical work which was to continue throughout their lives. In 1935, they both embarked on a world trip and spent six months at Adyar, the Headquarters of the TS, and were there during the founding of the KALAKSHETRA cultural movement in which they both worked.

Coats was associated with the then President George ARUNDALE during many of Arundale’s lecture tours. In 1935 Coats was involved in the reformation of the WORLD FEDERATION OF YOUNG THEOSOPHISTS and was President-Chairman of that organization for many years. In 1937 through to 1938 the Coats family, now including two children, stayed at Adyar where Coats worked in the President’s office. 1938 was not a happy year for it was in that year that their son Christopher was killed in an accident.

On the outbreak of World War II Coats enlisted in the British Army, but his stay was short-lived because he suffered a motorcycle accident which resulted in his being invalided out of the army. In 1941 he was elected General Secretary of the English Section which office he held until 1946. During the war years the Coats’ country home housed up to fifty persons including many evacuees from the slums of London looked after by Betsan Coats.

Coats recalls that he was able to fly to Paris in an army plane at the time of the liberation from German occupation and experienced the exuberance of the ecstatic crowds. He recounts how the French TS members met for the first time after the victory in Europe; the meeting being held in the French Headquarters building at 4 Square Rapp that had been used by the Gestapo (The Theosophist, April 1980, p. 300).

In 1946 both the Coats were invited to do TS work in America and lectured there for some three and a half years, touring separately and also undertaking tours of Canada, Mexico and Cuba. In 1949 Betsan Coats and the children returned to England and John Coats traveled to Australia and New Zealand where he lectured for about twelve months. 1952 saw a reversal of roles and Betsan Coats departed from England to lecture in Australia while John toured the UK and Europe for the TS. They were apart until the following year when they met in South Africa to continue the work visiting lodges there, ending their tour at Adyar for the 1952-3 convention.

Coats facility with German and French was used to the full when he became, in 1953, Secretary to Van Dissel who was in charge of the European Federation which embraced more than twenty countries. He was elected President of the European Federation in 1959 and continued in that capacity until he stepped down in 1968. At the request of the then President, N. SRI RAM, Coats undertook the organization of the first World Congress of the TS to be held since 1936.

In 1957 Betsan Coats had embarked on a hotel project in Queensland, Australia, which was intended to help war refugees settle in their new country; this meant many years of work and commitment for her and by 1968, the children having grown up and married, there were few ties left in England for Coats and so he sold their English home and commenced a period of world-wide travel for the TS.

In 1973 Coats was elected President of the TS, perhaps a fitting consummation of many decades of work for the Society. As President he endeavored to modernize many of the administrative procedures at the Adyar headquarters and published The Theosophist magazine in a new format. It fell to his lot to organize the 1975 Centenary celebrations which first took place in New York and then at Adyar where Betsan Coats, with many assistants, arranged the accommodation and welcome for some 3,000 members arriving from many parts of the world. Unfortunately John Coats was not fated to complete his seven year period of office and died in India on December 26, 1979.

Of the many tributes that flowed into Adyar when his death became known, the most prominent theme emphasized John Coats’ gentleness and humanity. His never failing consideration for others and flawless manners rendered him one of the most effective ambassadors for the TS ever to hold office. He stood six feet four inches (193 cm.) in height and was affectionately known as “the gentle giant.” His wife, writing in the magazine mentioned above, recalled that he believed that the key to the door of reality lay in a loving selflessness towards all living things, that only the utmost courtesy, in thought, feeling and action was good enough, and that when there was a difference of opinion or any disharmony this attitude became of critical importance.


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