Kenyon: Vermont’s leading Civil War historian finally gets his degree

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 05-17-2024 7:00 PM

Modified: 05-20-2024 9:53 AM


On a bitter cold February night in 1963, Howard Coffin packed his cardboard suitcase and walked to U.S. Route 5 in the village of Lyndonville, Vt., where he stuck out his thumb to hitch a ride home to Woodstock.

“A trucker came by and picked me up,” Coffin said. “That was the end of my college career.”

On Sunday, Coffin will return to the college campus in the Northeast Kingdom that he abruptly left 61 years ago to receive an honorary doctorate degree from Vermont State University during the school’s commencement.

An honorary degree is quite an honor in the first place — the Lyndon campus only awards one a year — but for the prestigious award to go to a college dropout?

“Howard is certainly deserving,” said Kevin Graffagnino, a retired college librarian and former executive director of the Vermont Historical Society. “It’s an honor given for his accomplishments and contributions to the state.”

Coffin, 82, is the leading Vermont historian on the Civil War. He’s written four books on Vermont’s outsize role in the war and you’d be hard-pressed to find a town where hasn’t spoken in a school auditorium or a local historical society’s meeting hall. Coffin figures he’s given around 1,000 Civil War talks over the years.

“The history of Vermont in the Civil War had been lost,” said Coffin, who lives in Montpelier. “It wasn’t taught in schools.”

Coffin traces his interest — a passion, really — in Civil War history to his mother, who lived on her family’s farm in South Pomfret. Arlene Jillson’s grandfather had fought in the war between the states.

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“I grew up hearing stories about the Civil War from my mother,” Coffin told me. “I was hooked early on.”

After graduating from Woodstock Union High School in 1960, Coffin had aspirations of becoming a teacher — until his junior year in college. His first day of student teaching was also his last day at what was then Lyndon State Teachers College.

Standing before a classroom of fifth graders, a teacher handed him a matter-of-fact script about the life of Abraham Lincoln. It didn’t take Coffin long to veer from the teacher’s lesson plan. “I knew a lot about Lincoln and I tried to liven it up a bit,” he said.

In the back of the room, the classroom teacher was “shaking her head the whole time,” Coffin said.

“I think he knew instantly at that moment that teaching wasn’t for him,” said his twin brother, Bruce Coffin, who after graduating from the University of Vermont was a longtime English teacher at a Connecticut boarding school.

Arlene and Wallace Coffin didn’t mind so much that their son was moving home and returning to his summer job as a bellhop at the Woodstock Inn. It was his timing that worried them.

U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam was starting to make headlines. Arlene, a telephone operator, and Wallace, a store clerk, knew if their son didn’t remain in college, he’d lose his student deferment.

After Coffin’s draft notice arrived in the mail, he landed at the former Fort Hood in Texas to begin training as an Army combat medic. It was “pretty certain” he was headed to Vietnam, his brother said.

Before finishing his training, Coffin was called to meet with a senior officer. A reporter from the post’s newspaper wanted to interview Coffin.

“Why?” Coffin asked.

A soldier with the last name of Coffin in a medical battalion had feature story written all over it, the reporter replied.

During the interview, Coffin brought up his own newspaper experience, covering high school sports for the weekly Vermont Standard. It just so happened, the reporter said, that the Fort Hood paper, with a circulation of 50,000, was looking to fill a staff opening.

Once he had the job, Coffin became a story-writing machine. Anything to keep him in Texas and out of Vietnam. “I was writing to save my life,” he said.

After the Army, Coffin returned to Vermont to cover state politics for the Rutland Herald. In 1978, he joined Dartmouth College’s public relations staff. After seven years in Hanover, he was hired as UVM’s news service director.

In 1990, Sen. James Jeffords, of Vermont, named Coffin his press secretary. The move to Washington brought Coffin closer to the Civil War battlefields where thousands of Vermonters had fought.

Although not part of his job description, Coffin got behind the effort of preserving Civil War sites. He worked with Jeffords to keep developers from bulldozing 500 acres of northern Virginia’s Wilderness Battlefield, which had historical ties to Vermont.

In May 1864, the First Vermont Brigade lost 1,234 men — nearly half of the unit — during a “heroic stand crucial to Union victory in the war,” Coffin wrote.

Although he left college without a degree, “I learned more than I thought I did at the time,” Coffin said.

Classes with professor Graham Newell, a state legislator, “inspired in me a lifelong love” for researching the past, he said. Coffin made a second career out of visiting town libraries and historical societies to pore over Civil War soldiers’ diaries and letters back home to tell their stories through his books.

Graffagnino gained an appreciation for Coffin’s “scholarship,” while both were working at UVM.

Without telling Coffin, Graffagnino nominated his friend for this year’s honorary doctorate. Since Coffin never completed his undergraduate studies, Graffagnino didn’t know how the nomination would be received by the university’s board of trustees who have the final say on honorary degrees.

A bachelor’s degree is a historian’s “learner’s permit,” Graffagnino said. “It’s nice to have, but it also takes real smarts and hard work.”

Leaving college without a degree was a “hole in my life that’s filled now,” Coffin said.

In his remarks to graduates and their guests on Sunday, Coffin plans to bring up the country’s 16th president.

Picking up where he left off just before hitching a ride out of town.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.