Reflections of a Firebrand

Times Staff Writer

From a corner of his parlor here, the fiery Presbyterian minister gazed through lace curtains at a spindly tree made bare by winter. A sparrow that defied the elements to take up residence peered back. Beyond lay the snow-covered village Common, the hub of the 18th century town where William Sloane Coffin has lived on and off for a quarter-century.

At 80, Coffin has come home to spend his final days. Doctors gave him six months to live when they diagnosed chronic heart failure after a series of strokes. That was 2 1/2 years ago.

No less defiant than when he was arrested as a Freedom Rider during the civil rights movement or when he protested the Vietnam War as chaplain of Yale, Coffin heeded medical opinion by writing another book.

When “Credo” came out late in 2003, Coffin put pen to paper again and produced “Letters to a Young Doubter,” to be published in July.


Still, reclined in the leather lounge chair that his wife, Randy, gave him for Christmas, he admitted, “My energy is so low now.”

This disclosure came awkwardly from a man known for relentless energy in pursuit of social justice. Coffin was an Army officer in World War II, acting as liaison to the French and Russian armies. He also worked for the CIA, training anti-Soviet Russians to work in their country. After the war, he graduated from Yale University and the Yale Divinity School.

As chaplain at Yale in the early 1960s, Coffin organized busloads of protesters known as Freedom Riders to challenge segregation laws in the South. He promptly landed in jail -- the first of many times -- but the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court. In 1967, Coffin was arrested along with his friend Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician and baby book author, on charges of conspiracy to aid draft resisters. These charges also were reversed.

Coffin used his pulpits as a platform for like-minded crusaders, hosting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, among others. Fellow Yale graduate Garry Trudeau has immortalized Coffin as “the Rev. Sloan” in the Doonesbury comic strip.


But ill health finally slowed him down. His infirmity kept him from joining in this town’s recent vote to bring U.S. troops back from Iraq. Strafford was one of 50 Vermont towns that approved a referendum protesting U.S. policy in Iraq.

“I think of this as a consciousness-raising act for the people here,” he said. “A reminder that we live in history, not only in Strafford.”

Struggling to enunciate, Coffin said he applauded the decision by small towns in a small state to send a bold message to Washington. Yet he wondered if President Bush and others were prepared to hear views in conflict with their own.

“People are forever attributing informed wisdom to power,” he said, “while willful ignorance might be closer to the truth.”

In Strafford, a town of a little more than 1,000, such pronouncements are familiar. The village has become a bedroom community of sorts for faculty from nearby Dartmouth College, as well as a weekend and summer destination for many New Yorkers.

With rows of Cape Colonial houses lining the Common -- including the gray-and-white home of the Coffins -- Strafford is a prototypical quaint New England village.

“We all cross paths at Coburn’s, the general store,” said Coffin’s older brother Ned, who moved to Strafford with his wife, Vi, in the early 1970s. His brother followed, choosing Strafford as a quiet spot to write a book. Coffin fell in love not only with the town, but with Randy.

After they married, and Coffin took over as senior minister at New York City’s Riverside Church in 1977, they kept their house in Strafford and spent as much time there as possible.


“Bill is known by everybody,” said Michael Manheim, who lives two doors from the Coffins. “He is very much revered, except by some very conservative people, of whom there are not many.”

In years when his health was better, Coffin often gave talks in the area, Manheim said. He presided at funerals and weddings at the United Church of Strafford, just a few houses away on the Common. Coffin officiated when Manheim’s son was married, and also solemnized the vows of actor Daniel Day Lewis and filmmaker Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, Coffin’s close friend.

Coffin, an accomplished pianist, also gave concerts at the church. Manheim recalled that at one of his last performances as a tuba player, he asked Coffin to accompany him.

“He was wonderful to work with, and something of a taskmaster,” Manheim said. “He reminded me that I could have practiced more.”

But Coffin is just as likely to lace his commentary with kindness, said Town Clerk Shelby Coburn.

“Bill used to come in here and make copies of his sermons and things he had written,” she said. “If you asked how he was, he always deflected the question and asked about you. That’s Bill. He thinks of others.”

He took the inspiration for his newest book from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” Coffin imagines a series of missives with a fictional college student named Tom, who is struggling with undergraduate angst over a range of issues.

When Tom writes, for example, that he wants to take a summer job as a lifeguard, Coffin challenges him, urging the boy to travel and advising: “There are two ways, my friend, that you can be rich in life. One is to make a lot of money and the other is to have few needs.”


Nicole Smith Murphy,who worked on the book at Westminster John Knox Press in Louisville, Ky., said her calls with Coffin have grown shorter, as it becomes harder for him to speak. But she said he always leaves her with a joke, often something from a little girl in his neighborhood -- such as, “What do you call a cow with two legs?” (Answer: Lean beef.)

“You ask him how he is doing, and he says, ‘Randy and I are great. It is snowing. How can you not be doing great?’ ” Murphy said.

Here in his parlor, Coffin broke the stare of the sparrow and reached for a book beside him, “War and Peace.” Coffin finds the leather lounge chair in the sunny corner a fine spot for rumination.

“I used to, all my life, think: Well, finally we can count on American wisdom coming through,” he said. “That is a bit harder to believe now. I would not say I am optimistic. I am hoping -- hope being a matter of the soul, not of the circumstances surrounding your life.”