On a sunny, unseasonably balmy Saturday in January I found myself sitting in a back pew of an Episcopal church in Exeter, New Hampshire. I had made the hour-or-so drive from my home outside Boston to Exeter to attend the memorial service of a man who had died a few weeks before at the age of 97. His name was David Coffin. I attended the school he taught at for decades, the Phillips Exeter Academy. He was the pre-eminent teacher of high-school level Classics in the entire country, or so said those in the know.
Mr. Coffin, “Mister” is how we addressed our teachers when I was at Exeter, never taught me. Although I did take Latin, I was never lucky enough to have the great Mr. Coffin looking over my shoulder as I attempted a translation.
Why then, you might ask, would I steal time from a precious Saturday afternoon to honor a man who never directly had me in his sway? I felt the answer to that question as I sat in the back pew listening to the organ prelude as the people filed in, filling up the church to capacity.
Feeling Immense Gratitude
I felt, sitting there, immense gratitude toward Mr. Coffin for all that he did for so many of us students, for devoting his prodigious talents to the development of young minds and young lives. When I knew him—I attended the Academy as it’s called—from 1964 to 1968 he was a swarthy, trim handsome man. He was a mountain climber and a tennis player, as well as a scholar of the first order. When I’d see Mr. Coffin walking the corridors of the Academy Building, I’d feel the combination of fear and awe such teachers—and Exeter had quite a few—inspire in young students like me.
Now 70 years old, I sat, listening to the organ, looking around at the people who’d come, including my 9th grade math teacher, Walter Burgin. He has as accomplished a mind as David Coffin, and made math as simple as pie. I would not have gone to medical school were it not for the confidence Mr. Burgin instilled in me by making math so accessible. That’s what these great teachers did; they drew us in without our even noticing how much they were getting us to prove to ourselves we could do.
I sat there, feeling gratitude to Mr. Coffin, now deceased, and to Mr. Burgin, very much alive, and to this great school that had so fortuitously come into my life, changing me forever. I went on to Harvard after Exeter, and while Harvard was a fine place to go to college, my years at Exeter shaped me more radically than any four years of my life ever have.
I went back to honor all that, and for the minutes I sat in the church I basked in the feeling of gratitude and love. Fred Tremallo, my 12th. grade English teacher at Exeter, who changed my life more than any teacher before or since, told us never to become one of those sentimental alums who come back and sugar coat the years we spent at Exeter, forgetting the pain and angst all of us felt there some of the time.
But I’d grown so old that by the Saturday of Mr. Coffin’s service I even felt gratitude for the pain and angst. Also attending the service was another English teacher, David Weber, who’d helped me edit my last book, as well as a former Dean and history teacher, Jack Hearny, who’s still leading seminars, trips, and gatherings long after he’s retired. In fact, his favor that day was to transport to the memorial service the imperious but well-loved Jackie Thomas, wife of another deceased Latin teacher, David Thomas, who actually did teach me.
No, Fred, I will not be one of those sentimental alums. But there is a ripeness to the fruit age which imparts, an advanced taste that surpasses sentiment and taps into the subtle juices youth simply lacks the palate to appreciate.
Savoring the moment
Sitting there, I got to savor those juices for a while. Also while sitting there I got to see my past, and sense my death one day, while celebrating the life of a man who just did die, amongst those who knew him well and loved him dearly.
Finally, sitting there I gave thanks to whatever force it was that allowed me to happen upon the notice of David Coffin’s death, the announcement of the memorial service, and to get into my car that balmy Saturday and drive back up to my old school.
How did I know that it would mean so much to me?
I didn’t. And that’s just the point. We do important things governed by tides and winds we don’t understand, and yet obey.
My hope for all of you is that such a tide or wind brings you to a place you find as enormously important and poignant as I found that service for Mr. Coffin to be.
Edward “Ned” Hallowell