Virginia S. Coleman

June 1 1923 - December 7, 2019


Virginia Spivey Coleman, age 96, of Oak Ridge died peacefully in her sleep at home on Saturday, December 7, 2019, with family members and her cat, Ebony, beside her.  A Memorial Service will be held at 2 p.m. on Thursday, January 30, 2020, at the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church, 809 Oak Ridge Turnpike, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, with a reception at the church to follow.

Virginia was born on June 1, 1923, in Louisburg, Franklin County, North Carolina, as the fourth of six children to Fenner Norman and Aldonia Wheless Spivey.  Her father died when she was 12, and her mother raised all six children single-handedly; insisting that all six -- including all four girls -- obtain college educations, which was highly unusual for women in the South in the 1930s.

Virginia attended Louisburg College, the oldest two-year college in the country, during 1940 to 1942.  She belonged to the Phi Theta Kappa society and graduated summa cum laude.

She completed her degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the oldest public university in the United States.  She had to convince the dean to allow a woman to major in a subject other than teaching or nursing in order to complete her bachelor of arts degree in chemistry, graduating in 1944.

In late 1943 she was recruited to work, after graduation, as a chemist on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Much of her effort was directed towards analyzing the chlorination of uranium, an important step in separating U-235 from U-238.  Denise Kiernan has written about the war years experiences of several women, including Virginia, in "The Girls of Atomic City".  The National Women’s History Museum website has a page on Virginia’s life.  And the Atomic Heritage Foundation has a profile of Virginia, including a taped interview recording her memories of those years.

After World War II ended, Virginia remained in Oak Ridge, working on research projects such as the Molten Salt Reactor and an ion exchange technique.  She continued to enjoy the intellectual stimulation of working as a scientist in a scientific environment.  Among her cherished memories was being present at one of the first demonstrations of cloud seeding to produce snow.

On April 5, 1952, she married Charles Coleman in a ceremony at Chapel on the Hill.  She retired from work in 1953 with the birth of her first child.  She would return to school and begin a second career in 1976 after raising three children.  In between these careers she kept active physically, artistically, and socially in many endeavors.


Starting in high school, Virginia was an avid tennis player.  She was on the tennis team at Chapel Hill, and during the war years she was on the Tennessee Eastman women's tennis team.  She continued playing into her 60s.

Over the years, photography clubs in Oak Ridge changed names, merged, and went through periods of greater and lesser corporate support.  Virginia was a member of most of the clubs, participating on committees and elected Secretary/Treasurer in 1952 and Vice President in 1954.  She won several awards for her photographs and slides, including Best of Show in Color Print for her “Early Morning” in 1979.  She remained active with the club for most of her life, teaching a program on the use of camcorders in 1984 and using a darkroom built by her husband Charles, another avid photographer, to develop her own film and print her own photographs.

Virginia enjoyed hiking.  During the war years, she would take breaks from days inside the fence by hiking across the hills near Oak Ridge.  In 1947 she joined the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and remained a member for the rest of her life.  She began leading hikes in 1949 and continued doing that into the 1970s.  She was on the Handbook Committee or Photographic Committee several times, chairing Handbook in 1955 and Photographic in 1996.  In 1990 she and her husband Charles were honored by being made Life Members.  She frequently took her camera on those hikes and received over two dozen photographic awards between 1950 and 1996.

Virginia was also an early and life-long member of Planned Parenthood, working as an Intake Interviewer, and of the League of Woman Voters, where she advocated for the introduction of a state income tax to alleviate the effect of the regressive sales tax on the poor and authored “A Fiscal Profile of Government in Tennessee” in 1968.

In 1976 Virginia returned to school, to obtain a master’s degree in Clinical Social Work from the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1978.  She earned certification in 1981 from ACSW and in 1985 from the Tennessee LCSW. In 1987 she was named a Board Certified Diplomate by the NASW.

Virginia applied her skills in social work at Child and Family Services on a multi-year federally funded project to prevent child abuse in rural Appalachia.  She entered private practice in Oak Ridge in 1982. She was frequently called upon by the Anderson County Court to help with cases involving child abuse.

In 1989 Virginia read about a successful child abuse prevention program, called Healthy Start, that had been established in Hawaii. In 1992 she and Janie Hiserote were invited to attend a national conference in Hawaii on Healthy Start.  The program uses surveys of pregnant women to identify those whose newborns are likely to be at risk and offers in-home support for those mothers during the first five years of the child's life.  When Virginia and Ms. Hiserote returned to Oak Ridge, they raised interest in Healthy Start, and in 1994 the Tennessee State Legislature established funding for child abuse prevention programs. In 1998 funding was extended to include Anderson County.  In 1999 Virginia and Ms. Hiserote were recognized by Anderson County Health Council for their Healthy Start’s healthy start.

The East Tennessee Council on Children and Youth honored Virginia as their 1995-96 Volunteer of the Year.  Virginia also received a Children’s Hero Award in 2001.

Virginia later became involved with Alzheimer's support, working particularly to develop support groups for caretakers of Alzheimer's sufferers.  After her husband Charles was diagnosed with this disease she attended conferences on the progress of Alzheimer's research and used her scientific background to study articles and discuss treatments with Charles’s doctor.  Virginia was preceded in death by Charles, from complications from Alzheimer’s, in 2006.

After her second retirement in 1996, Virginia became an avid attendee of Oak Ridge Institute for Continued Learning (ORICL), signing up for the maximum allowed number of classes each term.  She attended ORICL classes through summer 2019.  She was also an active member of two book groups: one classic and one non-fiction.

In 2016, the HonorAir Knoxville extended honorary veteran status to members of the Manhattan Project and flew Virginia and three other Manhattan Project members up to Washington, D.C. for tours of the national memorials.

Virginia was proud of being physically fit, and was able to walk with sticks up until a few weeks before her death, from congestive heart failure.  A scientist to the end, Virginia donated her body to a medical school in Memphis.

The family extends its thanks Dr. Toral Pattni, for tending to Virginia’s health care for so long; and to Gabriel Cole, close friend and beloved in-home care provider for all these years.

Virginia is survived by three children: Franklin Coleman of Springfield, Virginia; Nancy McComb of Wartburg, Tennessee, and her husband Wendell McComb; and Arthur Coleman of Herndon, Virginia, and his wife Suzanne Hediger.  She is also survived by three grandchildren: Melody Carmody of Farmington Hills, Michigan; Byron Liveoak of Herndon, Virginia; and Charles Coleman of Herndon, Virginia, and by numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces, and grandnephews.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to either Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee (PCAT: the successor of Healthy Start) or the Alzheimer’s Association.

Contributions to PCAT can be made through, or by mail to PCAT, 1660 Oak Ridge Turnpike, Oak Ridge, TN 37830, Attn: Whitley Meyers.

Contributions to the Alzheimer’s Association can be made through, or by mail to Alzheimer’s Association, 9050 Executive Park Drive, Suite A106, Knoxville, TN 37923.