Robert Morris Coffin, 87, mapmaker, intelligence agent

July 03, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Robert Morris Coffin, an artist, teacher, CIA officer and wartime cartographer who helped design maps of the French coast at Normandy in preparation for the D-Day invasion, died of pneumonia Tuesday at Calvert Memorial Hospital in Prince Frederick. He was 87.

Mr. Coffin was born in St. Mary's, Ohio, the son of a judge. He attended Miami University and University of New Mexico, studying art, anthropology and archaeology. He received a master's degree from Ohio State University, where he met his wife, the former Jane Peter, and where he was teaching when World War II began.

At the start of the war, Mr. Coffin went to work for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. His brother-in-law, A. H. Robinson, was chief of the OSS cartography section and hired him to work on a team compiling maps to help with the Allied invasion of North Africa.

In 1943, Mr. Coffin attended the First Quebec Conference and the Cairo-Tehran Conference, at which President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill hammered out their strategy for the war.

In 1944, he was assigned to the OSS London office to serve on a team that designed maps for the Normandy invasion.

During an undercover mission prior to the invasion, Mr. Coffin scouted potential sites for the landing of allied forces.

"At one place, he got little French boys from a nearby village to show him where Germans had hidden their mines," said a daughter, Deborah Kennedy of Cambridge. "So he went back to London and told them to discount that site for the landing. He was full of interesting stories like that."

Mr. Coffin was awarded the James Forrestal Medal and other honors for his wartime efforts.

After the war, Mr. Coffin served as dean of the Cincinnati Art Academy and the Minneapolis School of Art before rejoining the intelligence community in 1951 as a CIA officer. He was involved in the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and served more than three years in intelligence operations in Vietnam.

He retired from the CIA in 1971 and had been living in Scientists' Cliffs in Calvert County, where he continued his lifelong interest in art. He painted and held exhibitions of his work, including a 50-year retrospective in 1980. He designed the Calvert County seal and, with his wife, painted murals for the Calvert County Courthouse in Prince Fredrick.

A memorial service for Mr. Coffin will be held at 2:30 p.m. July 22 at Christ Church Parish Hall, Port Republic.

In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by another daughter, Margo Groff of Pleasant Gap, Pa.; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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