Editor's Notebook: When they made Frank Coffin, they broke the mold

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There’s a hole in the heart of Maine that isn’t likely to heal for a long time, left by the death Dec. 7 of Frank M. Coffin.

Much has been said and written in the last week about Judge Coffin’s professional accomplishments – his achievements as a lawyer, politician and diplomat, and ultimately as one of the country’s most respected federal appeals court judges – and the pride and affection he evoked in people from one end of the state to the other. His life’s work, his concern for the underprivileged and the humanity he brought to the court system touched every one of us in some way, whether or not we knew it and whether or not we knew him.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I knew the judge for the last 25 years and came to love him and his dear wife Ruth as one would a favorite uncle and aunt.

Our relationship started soon after the judge hired my wife as a law clerk, in the fall of 1983. We were living in Los Angeles, expecting the birth of our first child, and had tried unsuccessfully via long distance to arrange rental housing in Portland for the following summer. When it was decided I would have to travel east on a house-hunting trip, the Coffins graciously offered me a room in their home overlooking Casco Bay.

It was my first hint of their hospitality and friendship, something I savored as much as the beacon of Portland Head Light shining at night through the windows of my borrowed bedroom. I returned to L.A. with a South Portland rental home under lease, confident more than ever about our decision to move to Maine for Barbara’s clerkship with Judge Coffin.

What we expected to be a one-year stop on the road to somewhere else became a life-changing experience when the judge offered first to extend Barbara’s appointment for a year, and eventually hired her as his career law clerk. We realized early on there was no better opportunity for a lawyer and her family than to work, learn, live and play at the elbow of Judge Coffin.

Many others – judges, lawyers, court staff in Portland and Boston – can attest to Judge Coffin’s status as a legal scholar and his love of the law. But what set him apart for me was his unbridled love of Maine and family. He cherished Ruth, their children and grandchildren, and went out of his way to make each one of his nearly 70 law clerks and their families feel like family members, too.

For many years, the judge invited his clerks to the Coffin family’s rustic summer home in South Harpswell for an annual day of water sports and a lobster feast. It was there that he taught our second child at the age of 2 that you couldn’t attack a freshly boiled lobster with a knife and fork. Back in South Portland, there were regular get-togethers at the Coffin home to celebrate the winter solstice, the arrival of new law clerks and the departures of clerks who were moving on to law firms, public interest jobs or in some cases, the chambers of U.S. Supreme Court justices. And there were day-long excursions – a hike up Pleasant Mountain, or a canoe trip on the Saco River – where the judge shared his appreciation and affection for Maine’s natural beauty.

Whether they remained in Maine or not, the “Coffin Clever,” as the judge collectively called them, became an extended family, deeply rooted in public service, fairness, respect for the law and respect for those who depend on it, with Frank and Ruth Coffin at the center.

While he took his job seriously, there was always a twinkle in the judge’s eye, a hint that lurking not too far beneath the surface was a man who loved to laugh and who delighted in showing off Maine to his clerks, some of whom had never set foot in the state (or maybe even been north of Boston) before they were invited to interview with the judge in his Portland chambers. There, he would chat with them beneath a portrait of him feverishly writing an opinion, quill pen in hand (technologically, the judge was a late bloomer), bushy eyebrows flared, his tongue darting out from between his lips. It’s a much more accurate portrayal of the judge than the solemn, serious image that hangs at the federal courthouse in Boston.   

The clerks took full advantage of the judge’s sense of humor, not to mention the trust he placed in them, by pulling April Fools Day pranks. Their jokes varied from the sublime (a videotape parody of “60 Minutes” that mocked his relatively small physical stature and his public anonymity) to the ridiculous (tiling his chambers bathroom floor with Saltine crackers). The judge took them all in stride and good humor, and even retaliated one year by stacking tin boxes behind the chambers door and waiting for his clerks to come in and knock them over.

The judge was such a good sport that for his 20th anniversary on the bench, several clerks and I put together a mock impeachment hearing, performed at a summer reunion of the Clever. It included videotape testimony from Sen. Edmund S. Muskie and the first Ruth in Judge Coffin’s life, his mother. She was in her 80s at the time, and frail, but sharp as a tack. And despite the roast-like intent, she couldn’t say anything embarrassing or funny about her son, her “good boy.” She adored him, and it brought us to tears.  

Since the judge’s retirement from active judicial service only three years ago, our time together had mostly been limited to semi-annual clerk reunions and frequent Sunday afternoon visits at the Coffin home. The judge, Ruth, Barbara and I would sit in the Coffins’ living room, surrounded by his sculpture and artwork, looking out over Casco Bay, discussing current events of all sorts. The topics varied, from state or national politics, to the front page of that week’s Forecaster, to news about family and former clerks. But the judge’s caring, curiosity, insight, wit and warmth carried the conversations, reminders of why I came to Maine and why I’m still here.

Frank Coffin’s death leaves a hole in my heart that won’t heal for a long, long time.

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Mo Mehlsak is editor of The Forecaster. He can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 107 or mmehlsak@theforecaster.net. You can also follow Mo @mmehlsak on Twitter.

Editor of The Forecaster; prior reporting/editing gigs at Automotive Age magazine, Daily News of Los Angeles, Biddeford Journal Tribune; Syracuse U. Orange-bleeder; lifelong NY Yankees fan, longtime resident of Red Sox Nation.