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On Coffin and Bush

December 4, 2018

The recent death of former President George H.W. Bush reminded me of a story that was told to me by the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin. Coffin was, most famously, the chaplain at Yale during some turbulent times in the 1960’s and 1970’s (and the inspiration for the Doonesbury character Rev. Scott Sloan). I went to middle school with his son Alex, whose sudden death in a car accident when he was in his early 20’s led to perhaps Coffin’s most notable sermon, which has, by my thinking, brought a small measure of comfort to thousands of people who have similarly had their children die before them.

In any event, Rev. Coffin retired to Strafford, one town over from my home town of Thetford, and many years ago I somehow finagled him into speaking at a gathering of the Windsor County Bar Association, of which I was President (more or less by default) at the time. And it was on that occasion, that he shared this story with me.

Coffin and Bush (whom he called “Poppy”) were classmates at Andover, and were a year apart at Yale (Coffin spent one more year in the military than Bush did). Bush brought Coffin into Yale’s secret Skull & Bones Society.

In any event, at a time in the early ’70’s when Bush was the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., he came to Yale, and happened to pay a visit on Coffin.  At some point, Bush suggested that they play a game of squash. Coffin won the first game. And the second. And the third. Meanwhile, word had leaked out throughout campus that a monumental battle of “Left v. Right” was being waged on the squash court, and a large crowd had gathered to watch. Coffin felt he’d played enough, but Bush insisted on playing another game. Coffin won that game, and as he started to leave, Bush insisted that they play another. It was at that point that Coffin found himself thinking to himself “here’s a fellow who is stuck in a policy out of which he cannot extricate himself.”

It should come as no surprise that Coffin told the story better than I do.

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