Former Raleigh mayor Coggins dies

Successful builder played an expansive role in local and state politics.

Staff WriterAugust 27, 2011 

— Former Raleigh mayor and state legislator Jyles Coggins, 90, an influential figure during a period when Raleigh's population more than tripled, died Thursday night at his West Raleigh home, family members said.

Coggins was born and attended public schools in Iredell County, where he recalled going hungry during his childhood on the farm. But through hard work, self-education and a little college, he earned elective office, wealth and a 16-acre spread and grand house in what is now suburban West Raleigh.

Nicknamed "Bomber Jack," Coggins was a Marine bomber pilot in World War II, earning 10 combat decorations. Returning to North Carolina in 1946, he started small in the construction business but developed his company into a thriving enterprise by the early 1960s, when he also entered a career in politics.

"If you talked to him, you'd think he was a right-wing Republican, but he was really more of a populist," said Judy Coggins, a daughter.

Running as a conservative Democrat, Coggins was elected to the state House in 1963 and to state Senate terms in 1965 and 1967. He became known for backing measures to help people with disabilities. Often, he failed to follow the Democratic line laid out by party leaders.

"I was not a special-interest legislator," Coggins said in 1975. "I was never bothered by lobbyists much in the legislature."

Elected mayor of Raleigh in 1975, he enjoyed a contentious relationship with the City Council and was defeated two years later by Isabella Cannon, 73 at the time, who dispelled the idea that a "little old lady in tennis shoes" could be disregarded.

During a career in construction and development that spanned six decades and massive growth in Raleigh, Coggins built such landmarks as the Beckanna Apartment on Glenwood Avenue and a seven-level mausoleum at Raleigh Memorial Park. In addition, he was involved in the further commercial development of the western Glenwood Avenue corridor.

Working his way up

Judy Coggins said Friday that Jyles Coggins was proud of the buildings and other projects he completed.

"He was very proud of the work he did with Dorothea Dix and making conditions better for the handicapped," she said. "Also, anything that had to do with education, with making education more accessible."

Born on Jan. 10, 1921, in Iredell, Coggins had it hard coming up, once saying his major memory of childhood was going hungry. He once began a list of his former occupations with the jobs "Farm Worker, Salesman, Dishwasher, Janitor, Machine Shop, Railroad Brakeman, Airplane Factory Inspector ..."

"He was driven, that's for sure," Judy Coggins said. "He always wanted to make something of himself."

A quiet generosity

Coggins attended UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and Duke, and always regretted not graduating, said Judy Coggins. Those who knew him well said Coggins was a generous man who liked to keep his gifts private.

"He was the finest man you'd ever meet anywhere," said David Lee, who worked for Coggins for 40 years. "If he did anything for anybody, he wouldn't take credit. He said if you did it for credit, you did it for the wrong reason."

Coggins' wife, Frances Lyon Coggins, preceded him in death in 1995. In addition to Judy Coggins, surviving daughters are Jaci Gholizadeh, Debbie Schmidt and Anna Sherman, all of Raleigh, and Rebecca Coggins-Gibson, of Louisburg.

Arrangements, by Bryan-Lee Funeral Home, 831 Wake Forest Road, are incomplete.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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