NORTH BALTIMORE, Ohio - J. Russell Coffey, 109, a former physical education professor at Bowling Green State University and one of only three remaining U.S. veterans of World War I, died of heart failure yesterday in the Briar Hill Health Campus nursing home.
Born in Crawford County, Ohio, Mr. Coffey was a student at Ohio State University when the United States joined the war in 1917.
He was 20 years old when he enlisted in the Army the following year and served about a month before the end of the war. While he tried to enlist earlier, the military was hesitant to admit him because his two older brothers, Harley and Hobart Coffey, were fighting in Europe.
"I remember going down and registering," J. Russell Coffey told The Blade last year. "The recruitment man said, 'I don't think we need you.' Two weeks later, it was just the opposite."
Mr. Coffey was honorably discharged on Dec. 12, 1918, a month after the signing of the armistice.
"He had a lot of friends and relatives who did serve [in Europe] and had a pretty rough time," his great nephew, Jeff Coffey, said.
Years later, the elder Mr. Coffey told friends that he was somewhat embarrassed to be honored as a surviving veteran because he never saw combat.
"He really felt that it wasn't appropriate," longtime friend James Miller said. "He had been willing to [fight]. But by the time he got there, it was over with."
Mr. Coffey played baseball and was a track sprinter while in college, and went on to receive both bachelor's and master's degrees from OSU, and later a doctorate in education from New York University.
Both athletics and teaching continued to play leading roles in Mr. Coffey's life.
He officiated high school sports for many years, while he taught junior high and high school students in Phelps, Ky., at the former Glenwood Junior High School in Findlay, and at the former Findlay College. He also was an aquatics director for the Boy Scouts in Toledo.
Mr. Coffey was at BGSU from 1948 until 1969. He primarily taught physical education, although he also taught archery, psychology, swimming, and driver's education.
He was director of the university's graduate studies in health and physical education from 1952 to 1968.
In later years, Mr. Coffey credited physical activity and a healthy diet for his longevity.
He continued to drive a car until he was 103, about the same time he moved from his home in Bowling Green to the nursing home in nearby North Baltimore.
"Most of his reminiscing was about teaching, and a lot about sports," recalled Sarah Foster, the nursing home's director.
Mr. Coffey was an active member of the Bowling Green Rotary Club for more than 50 years, and was named "oldest living Rotarian in the world" by the club in 2004.
He was a member of the North Baltimore American Legion Post 549.
In 1921, he married the former Bernice Roseborough. She died in 1983.
In his later years, Mr. Coffey sat for many newspaper, television, and radio interviews about the war, including one with a former student, Leon Bibb, a 1966 BGSU graduate and former university trustee who is now a newscaster for WEWS-TV in Cleveland.
"He was a very gentle man who told me that he did his duty as he saw fit," Mr. Bibb said.
There are no immediate survivors.
Services will be at 11 a.m. tomorrow in the Smith-Crates Funeral Home, North Baltimore, with visitation an hour before the services.
The family suggests tributes to the Rotary Clubs of either North Baltimore or Bowling Green.
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