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The “Bus-Riding Chaplain” Comes to Rest

William Sloane Coffin Jr. '49, '56BD, died peacefully in his backyard in Strafford, Vermont, on April 12. He was 81; the cause was congestive heart failure.

Yale University Chaplain from 1958 through 1975, Coffin first came to national prominence in 1961, when he undertook—against the urgings of Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall '44, '51LLB—a dangerous “freedom ride” for civil rights. The “Bus-Riding Chaplain,” as the New York Times put it, helped bring northern white “respectability” to a daring and ultimately successful interracial effort to desegregate bus terminals across the South. While some older alumni howled for Coffin’s scalp, students raised bail money and signed petitions, and most younger alumni joined President A. Whitney Griswold '29 in backing Coffin.

For nearly 20 years, Bill Coffin’s public notoriety and energetic, epigrammatic preaching packed Battell Chapel on Sunday mornings—with Jews and atheists as well as Christians. Coffin’s critics accused him of political grandstanding at the expense of the Bible, but his sermons contained first-rate Biblical exegesis, moral reasoning, and an extraordinary faith in the redemptive power of divine love. 

As the religious celebrity of the 1960s and 1970s, and the most important religious critic of the Vietnam War and the military draft that fed it, Bill Coffin changed many lives by drawing people into deeper moral and religious confrontation with war and injustice. His public announcement that he was collecting resisters' draft cards, followed by his delivery of the cards to the Justice Department in Washington in October 1967, led to his own indictment on federal conspiracy charges. (Also indicted were Dr. Benjamin Spock '25, '29Med, and three other co-defendants.) An appeals court overturned his initial conviction but ordered a new trial; the embarrassed Justice Department dropped the charges.

Coffin was at home in any pulpit. Yale president Kingman Brewster Jr. '41 considered him an outstanding chaplain. Brewster told the 1968 Reunion Weekend that Coffin had preserved a “positive outlook on the processes of freedom rather than the rebellious, cynical opting out which has characterized other campuses.” Indeed, the uneasy but brilliant team of Brewster and Coffin helped prevent Yale students, faculty, and administrators from following Harvard, Columbia, and Cornell into divisive hostility during the massive protests of May Day 1970.

Two years after Coffin left Yale, he landed in New York City’s Riverside Church, the flagship of mainline Protestantism. As he had done at Yale, he set about transforming his formerly genteel pulpit: this time into an internationally renowned center of religious opposition to nuclear weapons, to urban poverty, and to U.S. interventions in Central America—and support for the religious and civil rights of gays and lesbians.

Coffin’s turbulent private life mirrored the volatility of the times. Two of his three marriages ended badly, and he was absent during much of his children’s youth. His basic disinterest in private life changed only in later years. And though Coffin’s edges softened a little as he aged, he never stopped speaking, fiercely, about the scourge of nuclear weapons. His last arrest—in a wheelchair—was in 2000, against the Catholic bishops' stand on gay rights. Coffin published two books, Credo and Letters to a Young Doubter, in his last two and a half years, and he received a steady stream of visitors once word of his illness appeared in the New Yorker.

“The only way to have a good death is to lead a good life,” Coffin said during a sermon prepared for the Class of 1949’s 50th reunion and delivered at Battell Chapel on May 30, 1999. “Lead a good one, full of curiosity, generosity, and compassion, and there’s no need at the close of day to rage against the dying of the light. We can go gentle into that good night.”


The AYA’s New Conductor

Organizing Yale alumni has kept nonprofit consultant Mark Dollhopf '77 busy in his off hours ever since 1997, when he founded the Yale Alumni Chorus. In July, his vocation and avocation will come together as he becomes executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA)—the Yale department whose statement of purpose begins, “The AYA’s mission is to connect and reconnect alumni to the university.”

In 2004, Dollhopf won the Yale Medal (the university’s highest honor for alumni volunteers) for his work with the chorus, which has taken hundreds of alumni singers on tours of China, Russia, Great Britain, and South America. “We struck a real resonance with the alumni chorus idea,” he says. “On our trip to China, there were grown men from the classes of the 1940s crying backstage afterwards.”

Dollhopf has called New Haven home since his graduation from Yale, when he went to work for the university’s fund-raising office during its 1974-79 capital campaign. After the campaign, in 1980, Dollhopf founded a consulting firm that introduced the campaign’s pioneering telemarketing techniques to other nonprofits. That firm was acquired by a telemarketing company in 1989. In 1993,  Dollhopf founded a second consulting firm called Janus Development, which concentrates on strategic planning for nonprofit clients.

His focus, he says, has been on volunteer leadership. “Boards of larger organizations tend to be rubber stamps,” he says. “We try to put decision-making back in the hands of board leadership and engage them more directly in the mission of the organization.” In his new position, Dollhopf will report both to Yale administration—in the person of the university secretary, Linda Lorimer '77JD—and to a 33-person board of Yale alumni.

Dollhopf comes to the AYA at a time when, he says, “the nature of alumni engagement is dramatically changing.” Under Dollhopf’s predecessor, Jeff Brenzel '75, the AYA began to work more on bringing together alumni with shared interests—such as their profession, their activities at Yale, or their ethnic or racial identity. The alumni chorus is a good example, Dollhopf says. “It’s a way of creating participatory opportunities for alumni as opposed to passive ones. It’s almost like putting the football team back on the field after 30 years.”

Ironically, Dollhopf’s new post means he’ll have to step down from his job organizing the chorus’s tours, which he describes as “an all-consuming task.”

“What’s going to be fun,” he adds, “is to see if I can replicate that passion in other organizations.”



Shauna King has been appointed Yale’s vice president of finance and administration, becoming one of the seven officers of the university. King worked at Price Waterhouse in the early 1980s before moving to PepsiCo, where she held several senior management positions and worked to centralize processes and systems in the company’s many divisions. She retired from PepsiCo in 2003. King, a certified public accountant who earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Lawrence University and an MBA from Cornell, succeeds John Pepper '60, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble.



The American Academy of Arts and Letters has elected music professor and composer Ezra Laderman to a three-year term as its president. Laderman, who served as dean of the School of Music from 1989 to 1995, is known for his lyrical yet contemporary approach to compositions ranging from solo works to orchestral music. The academy, which administers the Prix de Rome and other awards for artists and writers, is limited to 250 members who are elected for life.



The Mellon Foundation has awarded a three-year, $1.5 million Distinguished Achievement Award to Yale theater professor Joseph Roach to develop an interdisciplinary “world performance” research  program. Roach will use the money to support the staging of productions,  the creation of an archive of digital images of the history of performance,  and research.

Yale cancer researcher Joseph Schlessinger is among the winners of the 2006 Dan David Prize, a million-dollar award administered by Tel Aviv University. Schlessinger was recognized along with fellow cancer researcher John Mendelsohn of the University of Texas. The two will share the $1 million prize. Schlessinger’s research demonstrates how dysfunction in the receptors on cell membranes can cause cancer.  the end


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