John Nelson Coffey Jr., 85, died at his home in Raleigh on Thursday, April 9, 2015, following a lengthy illness.
John was born in Raleigh on August 30, 1929, the elder son of John Nelson Coffey Sr. and Mary Thelma Gatewood Coffey. He grew up in a family with deep roots in Raleigh, but also in the foothills of the Blue Ridge and the cotton fields of Anson County.
Other than his two years in the army, John lived his entire life in Raleigh. Some of his happiest childhood experiences were spent in the Boy Scouts, ultimately attaining the rank of Eagle. While studying for a bird watching merit badge he was mentored by the legendary ornithologist Roxie Laybourne of the N.C. Museum of Natural History (and later of the Smithsonian Institution). Through Laybourne John developed a passion for birds. He awed his children by his ability to identify a high-soaring speck in the sky, noting not just the speck’s species but also its gender. He would then whistle or warble or coo the speck’s call.
John graduated from Broughton High School in 1947 and briefly attended the University of North Carolina before enlisting in the U.S. Army. While in the service he contracted an infection that left him deaf in one ear, effectively ending his military career. He returned to Raleigh and began work for the family firm John W. Coffey & Son. He also took flying lessons and convinced his father to do the same. His father then bought a Cessna and for many years father and son enjoyed the open skies.
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In 1952, while squiring a debutante to the North Carolina Terpsichorean Ball, John made the acquaintance of Martha Snow of Raleigh. They eloped the next year, borrowing John Sr.’s plane to fly to Monck’s Corner, S.C., where they were married on July 20, 1953. They then flew to Florida and Cuba for the honeymoon. On the return flight off Florida’s eastern shore, threatening thunderstorms forced John to make a wide diversion and an emergency landing on an island beach. The island turned out to be Bimini and the beach fronted the estate of a Detroit industrialist who cheerfully offered the couple the use of his guest cottage. Thus began a marriage that lasted sixty-one years.
Shortly after their marriage, John and Martha moved into an upstairs apartment in a wing of his grandfather's house at 711 McCulloch Street in Raleigh's Boylan Heights neighborhood. In early 1958 they moved to a house built by John W. Coffey & Son at 3605 Dade Street in the recently developed Beckanna subdivision of Raleigh.
John would be the first to say that marrying Martha Snow was the best decision he ever made. Together, they raised four children: John, Nelson, Caroline and Dan. Each reflected different aspects of their parents’ talents and temperaments. John always placed family at the center of his life. As son Dan once said, “he gave us our dreams.”
John’s own dreams were hard to contain in one individual. He loved to make things. Together with his great-grandfather, he built an airplane in his garage, though he never flew it. Making it was all that really mattered. Later as his family increased, John built an additional bedroom in the garage, using the project to teach his older sons the fundamentals of carpentry. He had a passion for eccentric cars: a Vauxhall roadster, a high-finned Thunderbird convertible, and a succession of sporty Corvairs. John simply loved engines and gadgets.
From his scouting days, John always had a passion for camping. As soon as his older sons could hike he bought a tent large enough for a family of six, Coleman stove and lamp, sleeping bags and air mattresses and headed for the woods and lakes of North Carolina. He eventually built a trailer to carry the rapidly accumulating gear. Perhaps the place most beloved by John was Kerr Lake. For the short trips to the lake the family would bring the Sailfish—a glorified sailing surfboard—strapped to the car-top racks. Over many summers, his kids learned to camp, sail, and get along with one another and other kids. And they learned self-reliance. Later, family excursions became more adventurous, including two epic camping trips to Maine and Nova Scotia. There was also the week sailing on Chesapeake Bay and another week in the Abaco Islands of the Bahamas. Later in life, John and Martha made several trips to Europe and one unforgettable cruise up the Nile.
Almost as much as their family, John and Martha valued the friendships of couples they met in their first years of marriage: Walter and Jane Brown; Iggy and Sara Burroughs; Charlie and Emily Conn; Henry and Virginia Cooper; Tom, Ruth, and Billie Holmes; Gene and Ann Jones; Steve and Kitty Kinney; Ed and Betty Kornegay; Lindsay and Virginia Reed; and Pat and Audrey Stubbs.
John is survived by his wife Martha Snow Coffey and by his four children: John W. Coffey (Ann P. Roth) of Raleigh; Nelson Coffey of Saint Paul, Minn.; Caroline Coffey Fields (William A.) of Providence, R.I.; and Daniel S. Coffey (Martha Dearstyne) of Bellingham, Wash.; and their five grandchildren: Charlotte L. Fields, Evan H. Coffey, Larkin S. Coffey, William McC. Fields, and Hayden L.R. Coffey. John is also survived by his brother and sister-in-law, Thomas G. and Louise J. Coffey of Naples, Fla.; and by his nieces Susanna C. Stevens (Stedman) and Caroline C. MacGabhann (Daragh), and nephew Chad Maupin (Jessica Gregory), and their children.
For tending to John during his final illness, his family is grateful to a dedicated and compassionate team of caregivers: Margaret Kangethe, Amos Kubai, Esther Mbugua, Edward Mpata, and George Ndonga. The family is also grateful for the support and comfort provided by Lisa Hedgepath and the good people at Transitions LifeCare (formerly Hospice of Wake County).
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation in John’s memory to Transitions LifeCare, 250 Hospice Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27607.
A memorial service will be held on Monday, April 20 at 2 p.m. at White Memorial Presbyterian Church, 1704 Oberlin Rd., Raleigh. The family will receive friends immediately following.
Arrangements are under the care of Brown-Wynne Funeral Home 300 Saint Mary's St. Raleigh, NC 27605.