At 108, Ohio man in select company: those who've touched history

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
J. Russell Coffey has served his country and taught its youth. Now, he's one of the last links to its past

WWI veteran, at 108, is one of the few

At 108, Ohio man in select company: those who've touched history
By David Giffels Beacon Journal columnist

Russell Coffey didn't want a fuss over his 108th birthday. No party like last year. No cake.

There were sloppy joes and tapioca pudding at the nursing home; a few balloons and a chorus of Happy Birthday.

He got a card from faculty at the School of Human Movement, Sport Leisure Studies at Bowling Green State University, people who can't rightly be called ``colleagues, '' because Coffey retired before some of them were born.

He took a call from his elderly daughter.

This was Sept. 1. Two days earlier, a 112-year-old man in California had died, reducing a rarefied brotherhood by one:

J. Russell Coffey is now one of just 17 known surviving American veterans of World War I.

That number will not hold for long. The oldest, Emiliano Mercado del Toro, turned 115 last month; he is also the oldest man in the world. The youngest of the group is 104.

They are sprinkled across the land, from Spokane, Wash., to Florida's Gulf Coast, Rhode Island to Puerto Rico. Coffey, who once worked in Akron's rubber shops and played semipro baseball here, is the only one in Ohio. He lives in New Baltimore, just outside Bowling Green.

It's likely that none of these 17 men ever met. It's likely, given the long course of their lives, that serving in wartime is not their most significant accomplishment. It's likely they have forgotten more than they remember about a war that ended in 1918.

Yet it is impossible to overstate the electric connection they complete between long-ago history and the living present. To shake Coffey's silky hand -- a hand whose dark blue veins stand like the ridges of a topographic map against pink skin -- this is to touch the same fingers that gripped a Springfield rifle nearly a century ago, in the ``war to end all wars.''

The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 4,734,991 Americans served in World War I. Now there aren't enough to fill a platoon.

Living history

His room at Blakely Care Center is spare. A bed, a shelf, a small armoire, a recliner. On the shelf are two things: a birthday card and a framed certificate proclaiming him ``North West Ohio's last known surviving World War I veteran.''

To ask him about his life is to enter a narrow passage on the verge of closing forever. He is the difference between an afternoon chat and a textbook. What he says is not as important as the fact that he is here to say it.

Why did you enlist?

``It was the patriotic thing to do.''

His voice is a slightly slurred tenor. Questions often have to be repeated closer to his ear. Though he can walk, he sits this day in a wheelchair. His milky eyes hang their gaze somewhere in the mid-distance between ceiling and floor; they seem to be looking backward and not forward. He says he can't see more than four feet in front of him. His answers often drift off topic, most often to the subject of baseball.

``Along came the spitter, and the spitter acted just about like any other baseball that you would throw, but it moved a lot sharper.... There were a few things we did that we got away with.''

But he does understand the questions, and he does answer most of them, and he does seem to enjoy the exchange, even becoming playful at times. (``I drove yesterday,'' he teases. ``I probably should go to jail.'')

Coffey's room is not far from the house he lived in until just three years ago. He did not, incidentally, drive yesterday, but he did drive until he was 104. Did his own yardwork until he moved.

Born in Tiro, Ohio, in 1898, he enlisted in the Army in October 1918, about a month before the Nov. 11 armistice. He was a student at then-Wooster College, living in Creston and taking a streetcar to Akron, where he worked in a rubber factory to pay his tuition. He entered the Army through the ROTC program.

Two older brothers already were serving overseas, and he never shipped out. He was honorably discharged that same December and soon focused on baseball.

``Most of the time, there were two or three years, I played about every other game. (The players) were not hard to get along with. There were a few of the other players that drank too much, of course, and they were only good for four or five innings.

``I think there's a lot to dream about in baseball.''

In the early 1920s, he played semipro baseball in Akron. It's not clear what team he played for, but the most likely is the Akron Numatics, whose roster included Jim Thorpe. He also played for a team in Sioux City, Iowa, and later for his college teams, also running track. He was mainly a center fielder, quick on the bases, he says, and a .390 hitter.

He met his future wife, Bernice, in Creston. She lived a street away and they courted from about the time of his Army discharge until their marriage in 1922. Their only child, Betty Jo, was born in 1923. Now 83, she is Coffey's only immediate relative still living.

The family migrated for a number of years. Coffey studied education, earning his bachelor's and master's degrees from Ohio State University and his doctorate from New York University. Early in his career, he taught in Phelps, Ky., a town accessible only by a 9-mile mule ride from the train station, and a place best known for its feuding Hatfields and McCoys. His daughter recalls that he had to ask students to leave their guns at the door, then keep a careful eye out for fighting during class.

He also taught in Indiana and at Findlay City Schools and the former Findlay College. In 1948, he became an assistant professor of physical education at Bowling Green, where he stayed until his retirement in 1969. Coaching was always part of his job, and a number of his students and colleagues went on to coaching careers, including University of Michigan icon Bo Schembechler.

``The thing that I liked about students is they all were there for one reason -- that's to learn,'' Coffey says. ``They were always willing to pick up new things and willing to try out anything. We not only taught them baseball, but we also taught them fist work. Some of them were great fighters.''

In his retirement, Coffey was active with the Rotary Club, which he joined in 1954. At age 106, he was officially recognized as the oldest active Rotarian in the world. He is older than the organization itself.

He and his daughter attribute his longevity to good living -- a healthy diet, exercise, and the fact that he smoked only for a short time and avoided alcohol. Betty Jo Larsen says doctors told her that her father has the heart of a 60-year-old. The only pills he takes are to help him sleep at night. Otherwise, he wakes up and wants to get busy.

Now, he has outlived almost all his family. He has lived in three centuries. He has seen a range of American life few will ever see.

Last WWI soldier?

The last Revolutionary War veteran died in 1869. The last confirmed Civil War veteran died in 1956. Both were 109. In a country that is itself 230 years old, the span of these lives puts our national history into vivid perspective. We will soon tell the story of the last World War I soldier.

It will be one of the 17. It could be J. Russell Coffey. He considers this for a moment, then disregards it.

``Maybe someday when things are better,'' he says, ``I might try to play another game of baseball.''

The visit ends with his farewell:

``Goodbye to all of you. I don't know how long I'll be around.''

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