Frank M. Coffin was born in 1919 in “a small house owned by his grandfather just across the street from the Bates College Campus.” His remarkable, seemingly organic rise from a broken home to the top tier of Maine politics and jurisprudence is accurately and sensitively delineated by Prof. Richard J. Maiman, a 40-year veteran of the University of Southern Maine.

Weighing in at 587 pages, “A Man for All Branches,” may, at first sight, appear as a weighty political science tome. In fact, it is designed to please both scholars and the general reader. Maiman gives us one of the best regional biographies ever and presents the man in full, one of the state’s most upbeat, likable and productive figures of the late 20th century.

Divided into 36 readable chapters with a solid, energizing foreword by Judge Kermit V. Lipez, the book traces Coffin from his early life to his last breath and is likely to be seen, along with the Judge’s own publications, as the source for all subsequent studies. Indeed, Coffins’ own autobiographical writings and notes provide a basis for Maiman, along with strong support from Coffin’s wife, Ruth.

A steady filament shines through all the public documentation of a real person. Frank recalled a happy childhood with a small cohort of friends whose backgrounds reflected Lewiston’s ethnic (though not racial) diversity and Boy’s Camp in rural Maine where he was selected as “best all-around camper.” The same year saw the breakup of his parent’s marriage, a situation that sent the boy to live with his mother, “ripping out all trace of his father.” Somehow, Frank inured himself from the parental chaos, and the author describes these years as “a well examined life.”

In 1936, Coffin entered Bates College, where he became the fourth graduate in school history to receive his degree Summa Cum Laude. He was class Valedictorian, and his graduation speech argued that economic theory should be use more extensively in government. At Bates, Frank met fellow student Ruth Ulrich, who’d grown up in New Jersey. Within a few years she became his wife, mother of his children and his lifetime amanuensis.

Douglas Coffin once aptly described his father as having been born “a little bit old.” While Coffin’s life would take unexpected twists and turns, “in most respects his personality, temperament and habits of mind were well formed by the time he collected his college degree and bid Lewiston a fond farewell for the first but not the last time,” Maiman writes.

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Then it was on to Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School, a stint in the U.S. Navy and in 1942, after Ruth graduated from Bates, marriage.

The public life, which many readers will be familiar with at least in outline, is given in full, fresh detail. In the wake of World War II, Coffin joined Edmund Muskie, Lucia Cormier and others in founding the revitalized Democratic Party. He was elected a congressman, stood as his Party’s choice for governor, and in 1965 was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as Judge of the United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit. On the bench he acquitted himself with unusual distinction, serving for four decades, and eventually became one of Maine’s elder statesmen.

Yet, for this reviewer, it is his sterling family life, in marked contrast with that he experienced in his own childhood, that shines forth. Coffin is depicted throughout as extremely close to his wife and four children. “In later life, the Coffin children would half joke, half complain that they had never learned to conduct a marital quarrel civilly because they had so seldom witnessed their parents having one,” Maiman writes.

In his last year of life, on Nov. 19, Coffin wrote in his journal of completing the editing of  “Ch.9 and (redoing) part of summing up, cutting out duplications-R’s good criticism.” Maiman continues: “Those were the last of the millions of words Frank Coffin wrote in his long lifetime. On Saturday evening, Nov. 21, the Coffins were in their living room, the Judge reading and Ruth listening to an audiobook, when she noticed him slump forward in his chair. She spoke to him and he responded with garbled speech. She called 911. When the emergency team arrived, Coffin was alert and lucid but experiencing abdominal pain. At the hospital it was established that he had experienced an abdominal aneurysm.”

The light went out on Dec. 7, 2009, but the legacy remained to be told in this thoughtful biography.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History,” He is at work on a history of the Maine Historical Society. He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.


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