A Restless Spirit Tried To Make A Difference

A Md. Soldier's Somber Homecoming

November 20, 2009|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

Chris Coffland did not compromise.

If a job did not give him the chance to do enough good, to dig deep into understanding the human condition, he would not keep it, even if it offered money and stability. If a woman did not please his eye, stimulate his mind and share his passion for art, he could not fall in love. He would not even buy a pair of sunglasses if the label seemed tacky.

To understand why the 43-year-old Baltimore native ended up killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan last week, it is important to understand that quality above all. Because settling was never in his marrow, Coffland joined the Army as an intelligence specialist at an age when most men are working 9-to-5 and driving the kids to school.

Coffland's biography suggests a man auditioning to become the next Indiana Jones. Playing professional football in Finland. Hunting crocodiles by night with the Pygmies of Gabon. Making men 20 years his junior look like slugs in Army training camp. Coffland lived those and dozens of other adventures.

He did not bounce from job to job and country to country because he lacked purpose, friends and relatives said. He often moved to the next thing because no vocation made him feel he was doing enough for the greater good.

"He didn't care about success in the conventional sense," said Gilman School classmate and longtime friend Dan Miller. "He had to find something that would be consistent with the purest expression of his spirit."

Coffland, who will be remembered at a funeral Mass at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, lived a life full of complexities and seeming contradictions.

He cared little for money and said he needed nothing more than the contents of a backpack. But he cared deeply about aesthetics and accumulated a sprawling collection of art, vintage jewelry and furniture.

He was a steadfast friend, known for showing up spontaneously to help with housework or to provide comfort in a time of emotional need. But he could never commit to the same job or hometown for more than a few years.

He adored women and forged instant connections with his friends' children. But he could never find a romance that satisfied him for long.

He was a warrior on the athletic field. But off it, he showed empathy for people from all walks of life, engaging relative strangers in deep conversations about God and the purpose of life.

He was the freest of spirits. But he gave his life to one of his country's most regimented institutions.

No matter where he went, Coffland made friendships of unusual depth, often in a matter of days.

"Chris was just one of those people who was worth getting to know, someone you could always engage in an interesting conversation," said John Patton, his anthropology adviser at Washington State University. "He had this knack for being sympathetic, for knowing what you needed before you did and stepping in."

He loved to help a friend in need and often did so across great distances and without being asked.

He once chopped all of Patton's firewood for him without ever discussing it. When the professor's 10-year-old son felt lonely after the family moved from Colorado, Coffland took him to football games and became his de facto big brother.

Coffland grew up in Fullerton Heights and Timonium, the youngest of five children. His father, David, was a burly former football player and longtime traveling salesman. His mother, Antoinette, showed her love with sumptuous Italian meals. From an early age, Coffland shared an uncommon bond with his sister Lynn, eight years his senior and now a successful designer of children's clothing.

Her teenage dates had to accept that an outing with her was also an outing with Chris. The two of them loved to scour the thrift shops along Maryland Avenue for cheap paintings and sculptures. He loved to buy bold silver rings, fat leather bracelets and flashy cuff links adorned with dice, poodles and other offbeat images.

They developed their own language. Her white Honda was "the egg." A painting with three-dimensional yellow shapes was "potato chip." After he lived in Australia for a year, they called each other "mate." When he came back to Baltimore from his latest adventure, he usually stayed at her house in Homeland.

Though Coffland came from a blue-collar household, his athletic and artistic talents earned him a scholarship at Gilman. At summer football practice before ninth grade, he weighed maybe 115 pounds but happily went toe-to-toe with 200-pound senior starters. That impressed the classmates who would become his close friends for life.

He never got past 160 pounds in high school, but he played safety and teammates knew that if a pile began to form around the opposing ball carrier, No. 23 would come recklessly flying into the picture.

"For football, the best kind of person is one who plays with absolute abandon but does it within the structure of a team concept," said Sherm Bristow, his coach at Gilman. "That was Chris."

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