Robert Henry Coale, 66, softball coach

August 14, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Robert Henry Coale excelled at all kinds of sports growing up -- football, baseball, basketball and softball. But it was women's fast-pitch softball that became his passion, leading to a coaching career that helped dozens of Harford County girls and women in the sport.

Mr. Coale, a retired chief of the field exploration unit of the Army Corps of Engineers, died Monday at his Bel Air home of bladder cancer. He was 66.

"We used to always say he had softballs in his blood -- that's how much he loved the game," said a daughter, Michelle Millay of Bel Air.

Mr. Coale coached women's softball for 15 years at Harford Community College and helped found the Harford County Women's Fast Pitch League. Before that, he led teams sponsored by Harford American Legion Post 39 to four state titles and appearances in national tournaments in the late 1970s.

Among his players was Elly Ripken, the older sister of Cal Ripken Jr., whom he recruited after seeing her play for Aberdeen High School.

Ms. Ripken recalled him yesterday as an imposing man who was straightforward in his coaching. "But the minute he smiled, you knew he was a teddy bear," she said. "You knew what he wanted on the field and that's what you did."

Though his work, Army service in Korea in the late 1950s and softball coaching took him on travels far and wide, Mr. Coale never moved from Bel Air, the town where he was born.

He graduated from Bel Air High School in 1954. He met his wife, Opal Isom, at a Bel Air roller rink. They were married 42 years before she died in January 2000.

Todd Holden, a retired photojournalist who grew up in Mr. Coale's neighborhood, remembered meeting him as a child. Mr. Holden was riding a bike down the street, and Mr. Coale, playing outside with his many brothers and sisters, threw a rock at the younger boy's back because he had neglected to pick up a ball.

After making up, they became fast friends over pickup games in the streets with Mr. Coale's family. "Back then, you made your own entertainment," Mr. Holden said. "It just seemed like whenever you were out, they were out on the street first with some idea to do something."

Mr. Coale was assistant manager at Thomas Run Park, the Harford County baseball and softball complex where he was a fixture. He gave advice not only to his players but to those on opposing teams.

That's how Lori Darnall met him, playing against a team he coached about 15 years ago.

"He could watch a game or watch you bat once and tell you what you were doing wrong," said Ms. Darnall, now a physical education teacher. "He'd just kind of tell you how it is. But always in a humorous way. He never came across as a know-it-all or anything like that. You trusted Bob Coale."

Even after his retirement from coaching in 1995 and subsequent illness, Mr. Coale retained his liveliness. Mr. Holden visited Mr. Coale a few days before he died. "I couldn't believe the spunky, argumentative spirit that he still had," Mr. Holden said.

Outside the softball world, Mr. Coale could be found hanging out at a Bel Air 7-Eleven store, with a group of 20 to 30 locals known as the "7-Eleven Trash Can Patrol." The store was a place for coffee, conversation and cigarettes, morning and afternoon.

That, predicted Mr. Holden, is where people will be talking about Mr. Coale's life in the days to come.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. tomorrow at St. Margaret's Roman Catholic Church, 141 Hickory Ave., Bel Air.

In addition to Mrs. Millay, Mr. Coale is survived by another daughter, Deborah Rezek of Bel Air; four brothers, Edward Coale and Joseph Coale, both of Darlington, Harry Coale of Abingdon and Lawrence Coale of Colora; four sisters, Sarah Hanlon of Bel Air, Lucy Heckman of Churchville, Elizabeth Waldron of Reston, Va., and Susan Souder of Hilton Head, S.C.; and two grandchildren.

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