EYE ON THE PIE: Recollections of a departed friend

July 7, 2008

"I heard the news," Sorethroat says. "It's a shame and a surprise. Funny how you think there's always time and then there isn't. I talked with him just a week ago and we discussed plans to have lunch."

"Same here," I say. Sorethroat, my inside informant at state government, and I are on the steps of the Capitol. We're reflecting on the life and death of Chuck Coffey, a good man and a good friend.

"He worked in this building for 16 years with Frank O'Bannon," Sorethroat says. "Actually, it was more years than that because he covered Indiana news as a reporter for WHAS in Louisville. I got to know him because he was always an insightful source of information."

"Yes, he was that," I say. "But he never let you know anything that was confidential. Discretion was his hallmark. He was never in the spotlight, but helped others to be knowledgeable and appropriate in their speech and behavior. It came from his background in protocol and journalism."

"Sure," Sorethroat says. "He knew more about how to display the American flag than anyone else in the state."

"Oh, it went much further than that," I interject. "Chuck knew about the rituals and formalities that are needed on different occasions for people of varying status. He worked many years in the president's office at Indiana University and knew how to provide appropriate responses to inquiries and complaints from any source. He brought that skill and others to serve Frank O'Bannon and all of Indiana in 1988."

"Yeah," Sorethroat says, "but he was a fun guy despite knowing all the formalities."

"Yes," I agree. "Chuck had a phenomenal memory for facts, stories and jokes. He loved history and knew details about Indiana and the nation that many historians never learned. He was a compendium of anecdotal information about Hoosier politics and personalities. Chuck was an arsenal of humor and had amusing tales for every situation."

Sorethroat lit another cigarette before saying, "That's probably why he got along so well with so many people. He could lighten up any situation. He defused tension with a humanizing story that was appropriate for the circumstances."

I smile remembering other facets of our departed friend. I recall his passion for baseball, his pride in having been a bat boy for the Kansas City Athletics, his devotion to the Chicago White Sox, and his fondness for the old St. Louis Browns. Sorethroat, too, is remembering. "What are you thinking about?" I ask. "Just all the true friends that Chuck had. All the people he knew and those he interviewed as a reporter who became friends, like Milton Eisenhower, Ike's brother. He was easy to talk to and people shared their ideas with Chuck."

"Well," I say, "let's not make him out to be a saint just because he's gone. He had quirks and behaviors that drove even his best friends wild. Remember how he had his rituals, things he did routinely and patterns from which he could not seem to vary?"

"Sure," Sorethroat says. "But who cares now? We can't feel better by recalling whatever faults he had. We don't gain anything by dwelling on the fragility of our friends. We benefit from establishing them as positive icons in our minds, as guides to what we hope for ourselves."

I think about how Chuck could transform this conversation into a story of hilarity or charm, and say, "Amen."

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.
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