PORTLAND – Several hundred people are expected to gather in Portland on Saturday to celebrate the life of the late Judge Frank M. Coffin, an iconic figure in Maine politics and law.

Coffin, who served on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for more than 40 years, died Dec. 7 of complications from heart surgery. He was 90 .

The public is invited to Saturday’s celebration, which will begin at 1:30 p.m. at the Abromson Community Education Center at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. The event was originally planned for January, but a snowstorm forced its postponement.

Douglas Coffin, one of the judge’s four children, said the timing of the celebration was perhaps a blessing.

“It’s very different than it was in January. There was a lot of grief laced in at that point,” he said. “Now it’s a lot more celebratory and less grief. We have had six months to acclimate.”

“This is a tremendous time of renewal, and it is a beautiful spring in Maine,” Coffin said.

Speakers at the celebration will include Coffin’s children, former Maine Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, Judge Kermit Lipez of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, retired U.S. Magistrate Judge David Cohen and Margaret McGaughey, an assistant U.S. attorney for Maine.

A native of Lewiston, Judge Coffin won a seat as a Democratic congressman in 1956, and was re-elected in 1958. He ran for governor in 1960, losing narrowly to Republican John Reed. At the request of Sen. Edmund Muskie — a close friend and political ally of Coffin — President Lyndon Johnson appointed Coffin to the appeals court in 1965.

Coffin assumed senior status on the court in 1989, but continued to participate in rulings until he retired in 2006. He wrote more than 2,500 opinions over the years, on cases ranging from desegregation to nuclear power.

He is one of only three Maine judges to win the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, considered the nation’s highest award for a federal judge. The others are the late U.S. District Judge Edward T. Gignoux, and U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby.

Coffin was well known for his kind nature and mischievous sense of humor, and he made lifelong bonds with his law clerks. The clerks, a group dubbed “the Coffin Clever,” have gathered every year for a reunion with the judge, his wife, their children and their families. Nearly 50 of the former clerks, from all around the country, are expected at the celebration Saturday.

“We are all very much looking forward to having everyone together this weekend,” said Barbara Riegelhaupt, who was Coffin’s career law clerk from 1984 to 2006.

The judge also had a passion for art. From the 1960s until the final months of his life, Coffin was a prolific sculptor, carving dozens of pieces out of wood and stone.

A penguin, a camel, dolphins, seals, owls, and a mother with child are just some examples of his work. Some of the pieces took years to sculpt. He did most of the work on Saturday mornings in his workshop. One of his pieces is on display at the federal courthouse in Boston.

A documentary film about Coffin’s artwork will be shown in a conference room at the Abromson Center on Saturday.

“He would let the wood tell him how to go about doing the sculpting,” said his wife, Ruth Coffin. “He had this theory that he wanted to be a well-balanced man.”

Douglas Coffin said his father’s approach to his art taught him a valuable lesson.

“He was a master at taking a small amount of time and making it useful,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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