Monty Coffin: Brilliant career military veteran

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By Robert B. Stewart  


Special to The Trimble Banner

As we pause this Veterans Day to honor the men and women of our armed services, Trimble County can be especially proud of native son Colonel Monty D. Coffin (1927-2000), whose Air Force career took him around the globe, but who never forgot his Kentucky roots.   

Coffin set records that likely surpass those of any other Trimble County military veteran.  He was the first to attend a collegiate military academy, and the first to teach at a military academy.  He is the only one to teach at two academies—U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Air Force Academy.  Also, his nearly three decades of active duty service likely sets a record, as well. Plus, he’s one of only a very few of Trimble’s veterans to achieve the equivalent rank of colonel or higher.

Considering Coffin’s doctorate and two masters degrees which he earned while on active duty and his completion of numerous correspondence courses, he undoubtedly is the most academically qualified military serviceman of any veteran from Trimble County.

During his long military career Coffin performed many duties.  Among these were Education and Training Staff Officer, Bomber and Transport Pilot, Acquisition Project Officer, Aeronautical Engineer, Space Systems Staff Officer, Acquisition Contractor and Acquisition Management Officer.

Coffin was born on October 25, 1927 to Charles and Elizabeth Jackson Coffin.  He began his academic career in a one-room school in the New Hope area of Trimble County under the tutelage of Mary Emma Pilow.  She allowed him to skip the first grade, and after the eighth grade, he attended school at Bedford.  After completing his sophomore year at Trimble County High School, he transferred to Milton High School when the family moved into the Corn Creek community in the Milton school district.  While at Milton High he was recognized by his teachers and fellow students as being exceptionally bright and also of being quite modest.  He played varsity basketball and graduated in the class of 1944.  

After high school Coffin enrolled at Western Kentucky University where he studied pre-med 2½ years. Relatives believe he did this to enhance his chances later of obtaining an appointment to West Point Military Academy. While a student at Western he lived with the family of Western’s nationally famous basketball coach, Ed Diddle, and he tutored Western’s varsity basketball players in mathematics.

In 1946 he was appointed by Kentucky’s US Senator Brent Spence to matriculate at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.   His academic efforts of four years were rewarded by his being ranked FIFTH from over one thousand graduates in the Class of 1950.  And he was rated FIRST in mathematics courses. These extremely high rankings exceeded by far the class standings of most graduates who later became famous generals.  

After his graduation from West Point, Coffin began flight training as a pilot.  He served as an operational pilot for three years, completing a combat tour in B-26 aircraft during the Korean War when he flew 29 combat missions and logged 82 hours of combat.  Other types of aircraft he flew during his career were T-6, T-29, C-45, C-47, and B-25.  In later years, Coffin enjoyed one of his favorite duties, piloting the Air Force Academy’s basketball team to its games and serving as the team’s accompanying officer.

He then attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for one year completing requirements in June 1955 for a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering.  He was then assigned to the faculty at West Point for three years, attaining the academic rank of Assistant Professor.

After two years of graduate work and research at the California Institute of Technology, he became a project officer on the Atlas Missile Weapon System Development Program in the Air Force Ballistic Systems Division.

He was then assigned to the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, California as a research associate for nuclear weapon development.  While there he completed requirements for a PhD in Engineering at the University of California.

In 1967 he was assigned to the Air Force Academy where he served as Professor and Head of the Department of Mathematics. In later years Coffin was honored by being selected in West Point’s Scientific 200:  Celebration of the Bicentennial.  Biographies of 200 of West Point’s Most Successful and Influential Mathematicians, Scientists, Engineers, and Technologists.  His biography included this question and answer:  “Do you know which Air Force Academy Department Head was a West Point graduate?  His name was Monty Coffin (a 1950 USMA graduate) and he served as head of the Air Force Academy Mathematics Department from 1967 to 1971.”

From 1971 to 1972 he commanded an Aerospace Defense Command Space Track and Surveillance Base located near Diyarbakir, Turkey.  On return from overseas, he joined the Air Force Materials Laboratory as Chief of the Advanced Development Division at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio.

In June of 1973 he was transferred to the Aeronautical Systems Division (ASD) as Director of Airframe Engineering followed by a position as Assistant Deputy for Engineering.  In August 1976 he became the Director of Contracting for ASD.

Not only did Coffin earn several college degrees, he completed many military correspondence courses in his spare time.  Among these were Squadron Officers School, Air War College, Principles of Contract Pricing, Government Contract Law, Industrial College of Armed Forces, Procurement Specialist, Procurement Supervisor, and Fundamentals of Electricity.

Coffin’s many awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Meritorious Service Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster (OLC), the Air Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal.  He also received the Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, American Campaign Medal, Korean Service Medal, AF Longevity Service Ribbon with six OLCs, National Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, AF Presidential Unit Citation, AF Organizational Excellence Award, AF Outstanding Unit Award, United Nations Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, Vietnam Service Medal with one Bronze Service Star, and the Legion of Merit. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lt in the Air Force on June 2, 1950 and retired as a colonel on December 31, 1979 after more than 29½ years of active duty service to his country.

Colonel Coffin’s brilliant academic achievements and outstanding service were accomplished despite personal tragedies.   His daughter, Susan, was killed in a horse riding accident in California in 1963.  His wife, Nancy Jane Patton Coffin, a Canadian nurse he met while teaching at West Point, died prematurely a few years later.     His father, known to his friends as Chock, died in 1973 while still farming in Trimble County.  And then, only two months later in 1974 while Coffin was serving in Turkey, his teen-age son, Robert, died from suspected Reyes Syndrome complications.  Robert, who was living with his grandparents, was an eighth-grader at Trimble County Middle School.

After his retirement from the Air Force, Colonel Coffin once again assumed the duties of mathematics and physics professor and taught at both Wright State University and Clark Technical College in Ohio before his second retirement.

He loved running and stayed in good physical condition by entering marathon races. Although he appeared to be in excellent health, he collapsed and died unexpectedly at the age of 72 after a gym accident in Kettering, Ohio on January 31, 2000.  

Survivors included his sons David Coffin of Aiken, SC and Charles Coffin of Dayton, OH;  daughters  Catherine “Cathy” Coffin Chandler of Salisbury, NC and Vanessa Coffin of Los Angeles; and his sister, Nina Coffin of New Castle, IN, as well as extended family and friends in Trimble County.

His second wife was Tanya A. Ledesma whom he married after his retirement.  She is the mother of  their two children, Charles and Vanessa. Their marriage later ended in divorce.

Many in Trimble County will remember Monty Coffin in his later years as a gentleman farmer who would leave his significant responsibilities as a military officer and later that of mathematics professor to come down to his childhood farm and look after the livestock and his property.  Farming was always in his blood even while teaching physics and flying military planes around the world, and he dreamed of retiring to the farm.

Trimble friends will remember two of Coffin’s children, David and Catherine (Cathy), who lived for several years with their grandmother and graduated from Trimble County High School in 1976 and 1977 respectively.

Justin Chandler, son of Cathy Chandler and grandson of Monty, was inspired by his grandfather’s military career and subsequently won an appointment to the Air Force Academy.  He currently is an Air Force pilot who flies C-130s and other aircraft at Pope AFB, North Carolina.  

A memorial service was held in Bedford at the Morgan Community Center in honor of Coffin in February 2000.  Military services were held a few days later in the Old Cadet Chapel, West Point, followed by interment in the West Point post cemetery.

Trimble County can be justly proud of the military accomplishments and long service career of one of its least recognized native sons--Colonel (Dr) Monty Dale Coffin.  Coffin continued to be a very modest individual throughout his entire career and seldom spoke of his many accomplishments. It is only fitting and proper to remember him when honoring our military veterans on Veterans Day.