In Memory of Bill Coffin

Marian Wright Edelman

God gave each of us talents according to God’s purposes. But when God created Bill Coffin, God “sho-nuff showed off.” And Bill, showered with prodigious gifts of mind, body, and spirit, used God’s blessings to bless all he touched and to help transform the nation and world he traversed for eighty-one years.

Bill was a man of boundless joy whose zest for life often made him appear bigger than life. He had a capacity to make each of us feel special, seen, heard, cherished, and embraced in his boundless fountain of friendship. Bill’s spirit of hospitality was equally boundless. There was always a welcome table in the Coffin house. I’m forever grateful that he took me, a penurious law student, into his family’s bosom with Amy and Alex and David and Eva for a year’s respite from Yale’s then segregated graduate and professional women’s dorm – Helen Hadley Hall. And he didn’t get mad when I seriously bent the fender of the almost new Coffin station wagon backing out of the garage.

I loved Bill’s gift of strategic mischief. He cagily used me to integrate the all-White-male usher board at Yale’s Battell Chapel, calculating that some Yalies would be afraid to protest such a revolutionary change for fear of being perceived as anti-Black. It worked.

Bill’s fluency in languages (he spoke four), in the prophets and gospels, in the tenets of all great faiths, and in a range of literary muses and philosophers fed a wellspring of eloquence in conveying God’s overarching messages of justice, faith, peace, and respect for the earth and others. Like the prophet Habakkuk who railed to God about the violence and evil all around him, Bill followed God’s response to the prophet to write the vision and make it plain so that even a runner might see it. Bill raised an unwavering prophetic voice against the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in a world in which 691 billionaires’ net worth exceeds that of over 3 billion human beings living in the 99 poorest nations. He challenged leaders who are still turning a deaf ear to the cries of babies starving for bread, and mothers dying in childbirth every minute in a world that squanders trillions of dollars on bombs and missiles as we teeter on the razor’s edge of nuclear destruction.

Bill’s extraordinary musical versatility – voice, piano, guitar, classical, Russian folksongs, sacred music, and hearty hymn sings – inspired and revived us during good and bad times. James Carroll recounts how Bill’s strong voice soared across the District of Columbia jail they shared after an anti–Vietnam War demonstration, carrying all their voices because he knew the words and the music of Handel’s Messiah and could express, like few others could, our deepest longings in protest and sermon and song and civil disobedience.

Bill’s courage was legendary. A child of the establishment, he challenged it. A white man of privilege and power, he joined his dear friend John Maguire and others on a Freedom Ride in Alabama to end racial apartheid in America side by side with Dr. King. Shocking many Yale alums, and giving Kingman Brewster the first of many severe political heartburns, Bill led protests against the Vietnam War and stood with the young who resisted the draft. Let me close with Bill’s words and gifts to us from his book Credo, which he sent inscribed “with love abounding and lots of hope,” and instructions to see page 19, which says:

“It’s hope that helps us keep the faith, despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing.”

“Hope has nothing to do with optimism. Its opposite is not pessimism but despair. And if Jesus never allowed His soul to be cornered into despair, clearly we Christians shouldn’t either.”

“Hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it. Hope resists, hopelessness adapts.”

Bill never adapted to injustice perpetrated by anybody, anywhere or to war or environmental degradation or nuclear proliferation, and we won’t either.

Bill’s final words to us in Credo were about his gratitude for “family and friends and nature’s beauty.” Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, “I feel more often serene, grateful for God’s gift of life. For the compassions that fail not, I find myself saying daily to my loving maker, ‘I can no other answer make than thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.’”

And so we join Bill today in celebration, thanking our faithful and loving God for Bill Coffin’s great life with thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks!!! Amen. 

Marian Wright Edelman is a lifelong advocate for disadvantaged Americans and is the Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). Under her leadership, CDF has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families.