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A Personal Tribute to Tom Coyne
on St. Patrick's Day

By June Allen


March 17, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - St. Patrick's Day makes me think of Ketchikan's city councilman Tom Coyne and of famous author Frank McCourt. They even look a lot alike -- faces like maps of Ireland! Of course I've never met Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, but his book lays bare the bittersweet memories of his childhood. And I've interviewed Tom Coyne on several occasions and I see some of the similarities in their impoverished early years.  And they both, like everyone in the Irish land of their bloodlines, are poets at heart.

jpg Tom Coyne

Tom Coyne
Photograph by Carl Thompson

 After my Ketchikan friend and neighbor Dave Kiffer returned from a year spent studying poetry in Ireland, I interviewed him about his experiences in the cold and rainy land of peat fires and Friday night musicales. He, a maturing poet, was amazed that everyone, he said, everyone in that land of Keats and Joyce wrote poetry! He told me that the owner of a grocery store, for instance, would tack his latest poetic submission on the wall of his store for his customers to read. There, in a country where a "fairy tree" can detour the routing of a major highway, Dave discovered that poetry is an inborn obsession.

 If longtime politician Tom Coyne is a poet, it is hard to detect it in his occasional outbursts at city council meetings. Tom generally sits back relaxed in his chair as he silently contemplates the back-and-forth debating of his fellow public servants. But when someone, anyone, says something that goes against the grain of what Tom thinks is common sense, he rocks forward in his chair and shouts his objections ­ whether anyone else is speaking or not. And he's heard!

 Tom is, by nature, combative. My computer thesaurus list the synonyms of that word as "argumentative, antagonistic, aggressive, belligerent, confrontational and bellicose." Tom is all of those. It's his nature. But even so, when he turned 80 in January of 2002, City Mayor Bob Weinstein presented Tom with a proclamation declaring January 10, 2002, Tom Coyne Day in recognition of his long service to the community. Tom can be a pain, but he's a familiar and beloved one.

 Tom was born Jan. 10, 1922, in Portland, Maine. For years I thought he must be from Boston - his accent had me curious. And for this story I looked up the early history of Maine and was surprised to discover that back in the Thirteen Colony days, Maine and Massachusetts were one big entity, with New Hampshire carved right out of the middle of it.

 Tom was born to a young family living in the ground floor apartment of a three-story tenement in an older part of  Portland, Maine. His mother did the cleaning for the  building and his father was a longshoreman with, Tom once mentioned, a "taste for the drink." His parents were Irish immigrants from County Galway, he believes, that western county of the impoverished craggy coastline of Ireland. Tom was the third child and second son of six children. When he was old enough, and that was not very old, he delivered  the Portland newspaper, including the heavy Sunday editions. He still remembers pushing and pulling an overweight wagon stacked with Sunday papers through the heavy snows of a Portland winter. Maybe today's occasional acerbic outburst was learned in the sometimes fruitless collecting for those newspapers.

And there may have been, even back then, a touch of the poet in Tom. Just across the street from his home was the house of the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Tom likes to mention that famous house in his old neighborhood. It was just an old two-story wooden house, he remembers, deteriorating toward the ramshackle stage. Longfellow had lived there more than a century before Tom was born and it was no wonder that house was falling down.

But! it was the home of the poet who may very well be one of America's most loved. It was Longfellow who penned the words of many of childhood's favorite nursery rhymes. He wrote The Song of Hiawatha, which every schoolchild was taught. Are today's schoolchildren still chanting the stanzas of Hiawatha? Longfellow's poems are songs in that they sing their way into our subconscious through rhyme and rhythm so that years later we can recite at least snippets from them.

He wrote The Courtship of Miles Standish and he wrote Evangeline, the tragic tale of the French-speaking Acadians who were forced out of Canada by the British and who settled in Louisiana, to become what we call Cajuns. Longfellow was the first of young America's authors to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. How could Tom Coyne, born across the street a century or so later, not have been familiar with the story of Longfellow, the boy genius who ended up a professor of language at Harvard University.

Another facet of Tom's uncompromising personality is apparent when he scornfully mentions that the old, original Longfellow home was cast aside when the neighborhood became too seedy and a tidy brick house in a nicer part of town was thereafter designated as, and called, the official Longfellow House.

The only other native of Portland, Maine, that has ever gained enough fame to be listed  as a "son of Maine" is present author Stephen King, another scholar with whom we are all familiar.

Young Tom Coyne, too, was a scholar. He attended the nun-taught St. Aloysius elementary school and graduated to Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine. That was  the beginning of his education with the Jesuits - the hard-nosed priests who brooked no nonsense from young scholars. Tom graduated from Cheverus High as salutorian of his class in 1940.

Half a century later, ready to interview him for the first time, I sat with him at a small table at Ketchikan's McDonald's. With his cup of coffee in hand, Tom quizzed me, in the spirit of good fun, through a rapid-fire series of questions on English grammar, syntax and usage. I passed, thanks to the tutelage and determination of one of my hard-nosed English teachers at a Portland, Oregon, public high school in the 1940s. And gained the interview.

Tom Coyne said that he had won a scholarship to and attended Colby College, a liberal arts college in Waterford, Maine, for two years. He had little to say about those years, which ended with the entry of the United States into World War II. Tom joined the Army and ended up on the Pacific Northwest, worked his way up to corporal and then rode a roller coaster of promotions and busts for "being so arrogant," he says, "telling them how to run things."

Failing to excel in the military environment, the Army placed him in the civil sector, and he found himself in San Francisco, interviewing the Japanese and Japanese-Americans for placement in internment camps, a duty he finds now to have been "crazy." Most of the Japanese-American men of fighting age had already enlisted in the military and the people who passed through his interview lines were very polite and docile, he said, the older men and the women and children.

From that duty he was given a series of easy office jobs, mostly mindless filing, at bases all over the country. But at war's end and return to civilian life he thought about his future and chose the west coast. Tom Coyne had liked Portland, Oregon, his hometown's namesake. That Oregon city had, in fact, been named in 1845 at the toss of a coin. Pioneer Oregon residents Francis Pettygrove, formerly of Portland, Maine, and Asa Lovejoy, formerly of Boston, Mass., tossed a coin to see which of their hometowns would be honored in naming the new city on the Willamette River. Pettygrove's favorite city prevailed. Both Lovejoy and Pettygrove are remembered in the alphabetical naming of the streets in northwest Portland.

As a civilian Tom Coyne's bad habits and excesses caught up with him when he tried to settle in Oregon. He enrolled at Portland University but didn't last long, and experienced the same problems when he enrolled at Willamette University, an educational experience that lasted only a month. Then he tried marriage. He and a young lady tied the knot at Seaside, Oregon, but that too unraveled. He was, Tom admits now, drinking and doping too much to succeed at much of anything. He was subsisting on booze, grass and pills, he says.

It was just a matter of time before Tom Coyne found himself in jail. The time came when he did a stretch of thirty days, long enough to sober up and think about things, like his future. From that jail he went straight to a sobriety club, got into rehab and was part of a formation of a recovery house. Tom does nothing half-way.

And it was then and there that he met the love of his life. Her name was Teddy Falconer, she was a very attractive woman, and she was from Ketchikan. Tom accompanied her back to Ketchikan and in time they became a couple. And almost from his arrival Tom Coyne became a quiet advocate for people in Ketchikan who suffered from the same dynamics and habits that had almost ruined his own life.

Every morning, every morning for many years, Tom walked the rainy length of Ketchikan's long street bordering the waterfront, stopping in every one of the many bars along the way. He was a familiar presence in each. He stopped for coffee or to talk with friends. He caught up on the local news. He was available if anyone needed to talk with him. He posted notes above the bars' public phones with phone numbers for help from problems with addiction.

About a year ago he had to admit that age was finally catching up with him. He was also still feeling the effects of an injury he suffered some ten years or so ago when he was hit by a bicyclist riding on the sidewalk. Recently a number of the downtown bars sold out to jewelry and curio stores, so Tom Coyne canceled his morning strolls. He quit that longstanding morning patrol because, he says, "There aren't any bars downtown now anyway." Well, not many. 

From the time he came to Ketchikan Tom quietly helped organize meetings to assist people working on problems with addictions. He was also always on hand to talk one-on-one with those who needed to hear sense talked into them. He also worked on many, many civic efforts --  KAR House, the Transitional Living Center, the Homeless Shelter and other projects. His more personal endeavors are without number. He chooses not to  talk much about those activities.

And then he started running for public office. He served on the Borough Assembly so many times that body finally instituted a term limit. I can't remember how many terms he's served on the City Council - which doesn't have a term limit. Tom has never failed to win an election in spite of all those adjectives I listed to describe him early in this story -- like, argumentative, antagonistic, belligerent etc. Think of it as confrontational poetry!  All those long words still apply to him, mostly. Still, the people of Ketchikan love him, mostly.

And don't say that every town has its own Tom Coyne. NOBODY has a Tom Coyne like Ketchikan's Tom Coyne!




This June Allen Story Is Made Possible In-Part By:

Madison Lumber & Hardware - Ketchikan, AK

Alaska Glass & Service - Ketchikan, AK

Sourdough Bar - Ketchikan, AK 
 Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Copyright © 2005 June Allen
All rights reserved.
Not to be reprinted in any form without the written permission of June Allen.


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