CHESTER, VT. — VERMONT innkeeper Jack Coleman, a Quaker, has worked at some of life's lowest jobs, searching for ``the dignity of all human beings.'' Today, in his large, rambling establishment called The Inn At Long Last, you may find him doing just about anything: cooking breakfast for the guests, paying the bills, answering the phone, or carrying in the luggage.
Mr. Coleman is a former college president and chairman of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank. He has had prestigious positions as a labor economist and head of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, and he has written seven books.
Coleman has also been a garbage man and a street cleaner. Abandoning his normal life style for two to four weeks at a time, and ``living somewhat in disguise,'' he says, he has dug ditches in Atlanta, washed dishes in a Boston restaurant, worked in prisons, and collected garbage in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He has worked on an oil rig in New Mexico, as a miner in a marble quarry in Wyoming, and as a construction worker at a sewage disposal plant in New Jersey.
These sabbaticals satisfied a longtime desire ``to walk in other people's shoes,'' says the innkeeper, a lean, tall man with a close cropped beard and silvery hair. As president of Haverford College in Philadelphia for 10 years, Coleman often urged his students to take time out to vary the rhythm of their lives.
``I got a range of satisfaction from those different jobs,'' he says. ``First there was the basic pleasure from proving to myself that I could do something well, a physical job. It was a sense of accomplishment all on my own, without the glib words of persuasion and without using my con-tacts.
``I don't flatter myself that I was able to fit into the inner circle of these people. My speech and mannerisms gave me away as being an outsider, but I found out that if I could carry the load, do the job well, that was what mattered - I'd be accepted.
``I may not seem so, but I've always been a shy person, and on the executive level there are times when you must talk and express yourself - others when its wiser not to say anything.''
But in the ``workingman's circle,'' he says, it doesn't matter if you're a talker or not. Doing the job is what counts.
One of the more dramatic changes for Coleman was living without a home in New York City in the middle of the winter, in February 1983. He kept a day-by-day dairy which ran as a cover story in New York magazine.
``By all odds I learned more from that experience than any other. Nobody I met wanted to know anything about me. Nobody wanted anything to do with me. Nobody would even chance eye-to-eye contact. It was then that I learned the true meaning of a phrase the Quaker church has for the dignity of merely being human: `There is that of God in every person.'
``That statement leaves no room for compromise,'' he says. ``There on the streets, it's pretty hard to find something of God in some people. But it's there.''
Was it a drastic change to suffer the indignities of a homeless person or a garbage collector?
``When you're a foundation president, and also a college president, you become arrogant very quickly,'' he says. ``You're necessarily removed from people. There is lots of flattery about what a good job you're doing. People just don't speak the truth to you. When somebody wants something from you, they'll tell you how wonderful you are, and in a while you begin to believe it.
``When I was a garbage man - and a good garbage man - I knew it myself,'' he says.
Working at the Union Oyster House in Boston, Coleman said he was pleased when the boss said he'd made a great club sandwich. He explains that he was happy in many of these jobs when he could feel a sense of accomplishment.
In New Mexico he worked on a drilling rig and also worked as a garbage man. One day collecting an especially dirty mess of trash from a motel, he noticed an elderly woman staring at him as he worked. Then she called out, ``Well, do you suppose you'll ever amount to anything?''
``I was around 54 then, and I guess she thought I'd never be anything but a garbage man,'' Coleman says. ``I refrained from telling her that I'd be going east the very next day to take a position as president of a college.''
HE delights in becoming involved in the life of his adopted community. Raised in a small mining town in northern Ontario, he has at long last returned to a small town. His father, a college-educated man, was superintendent of the smelter. His mother ran a boarding house. It was she who taught him to respect the workingman.
``My mother had wonderful relations with everybody in town, from the mayor to the garbageman. She was friends with everyone unless they put on airs. She cared about all kinds of people.''
As for his previous ventures into other types of jobs, Coleman doesn't suggest that anyone follow in his footsteps.
``No, I would never recommend this kind of experience for anyone else,'' he says. ``My advice when people ask about a job choice or a college choice is to go where your heart and your head tell you to go. If you have an urge to walk in the woods for a long time, go do it.''