John A. Coffin

[ Age 63 ] A paraplegic since age 25, he was an untiring advocate for the physically challenged

January 23, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

John A. Coffin, a paraplegic who worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life and access for the physically challenged, died Wednesday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center of complications from a 2005 auto accident. The Cockeysville resident was 63.

"A passionate advocate for justice and the involvement of all people in the mainstream of life, John became involved in civil rights activities in the early 1960s," said his wife of 11 years, the former Esther Miller, who met him in 1977 when they were attending the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals.

"He fought those who tried to defeat the public accommodations act in Maryland. He verified petition signatures and followed up on complaints of housing discrimination," she said. "He unmasked illegal rental practices when posing as a potential tenant and was offered apartments that African-American folks were refused."

Born in Baltimore and raised in Anneslie, he was a graduate of the old Charlotte Hall Military Academy near St. Mary's City.

He was a student at what is now Towson University in 1963, when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four African-American girls. Mr. Coffin chained himself to the main post office in downtown Baltimore to protest the slow response by the federal government in apprehending and prosecuting those involved.

At 25, and still attending classes at Towson, Mr. Coffin was injured in a motorcycle accident that severely damaged his spinal cord and left him unable to walk.

Though dependent on a wheelchair, Mr. Coffin poured his energies gained from his civil rights activism into helping the physically challenged.

"If you can't move about, if you can't get into places; if you can't live where you choose, you can't participate in society," wrote Mr. Coffin of his activism.

He told The Evening Sun in 1977 of feeling the sting of discrimination when asked by a bookstore owner to leave because he looked "a little different," and spoke of the time he wished to attend a film festival at the Baltimore Museum of Art and being carried seemed the only way into the auditorium, which he found humiliating.

"But I went anyway. I backed down the steps, bumping down one at a time. The railing steadied me," he told the newspaper. "I want to be able to come and go, like you. I want to enter by the front door, not a ramp in the rear, and ride in the same elevator, not a freight elevator."

"He used to say, `When you are newly disabled and don't know the law, you don't know your rights,'" his wife said. "Once he discovered the federal and state enabling legislation and funding, he sought to ensure that they were upheld with more than mere lip service."

He was a member of the steering committee and a pro bono lobbyist for the Maryland chapter of Disabled in Action as well as a plaintiff, investigator and advocate in three transportation suits during the 1970s whose goal was the establishment of a universally accessible public transportation system for the physically challenged.

"He was a most effective and forceful leader," said Phil Farfel, a former Baltimore school board president who is now a public health administrator and grant writer. "The Mobility bus system and buses with lifts so those who are in wheelchairs can get on board them is a tribute to John's leadership."

He added: "He knew the state and federal laws better than those who were in charge of implementing them, and he wasn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with them and take them on."

After a two-year battle, Mr. Coffin was successful in getting a $3,000 wheelchair lift installed in the Baltimore County Public Library branch in Towson in 1978.

"He could be very convincing and spent a lot of time rolling through the halls in Annapolis," his wife said.

Mr. Coffin had served on the boards of the Maryland Center for Independent Living and Learning Independence through Computers and was a legal advocate for the Maryland Disability Law Center.

"He represented those who were least able to represent themselves, residents of state mental institutions and nursing homes," said Mrs. Coffin, who works with the deaf. "He later worked with the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, protecting the rights of students with disabilities in the Baltimore public school system."

Mr. Coffin worked for the Maryland Disability Law Center for 15 years, retiring in the early 1990s.

He drove his car and was an avid gardener who enjoyed planting flowers and trees.

"He'd be in his wheelchair with a hoe while busily planting trees and flowers. It was almost a religion to him," his wife said. He also liked collecting wines and books.

He was a member of Congregation Beit Tikvah in Roland Park.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Stony Run Friends Meeting, 5116 N. Charles St.

Also surviving are a brother, Nelson Coffin of Anneslie; a sister, Marian Coffin of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and a nephew and several nieces.

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