Remarks by Dean Harold Hongju Koh at William Sloane Coffin Jr.'s Memorial Service
A Remembrance of William Sloane Coffin, Jr.
Remarks delivered by Harold Hongju Koh
Dean, Yale Law School
Battell Chapel Memorial Service, May 27, 2006
Bill Coffin was my teacher, as he was for all of us, but he became so in an unexpected way. As my family grew up here in New Haven in the 60's, my brother Howard, a student at Timothy Dwight College, began attending Bill's sermons here in Battell. For years, Howard called me almost every Sunday, just to tell me what Coffin had said. Later, when Bill went down to New York to preach at Riverside Church, his parishioners included my sister Jean, who now teaches with me at Yale Law School. What Bill taught us, through a lifetime of brilliant sermons and courageous confrontations, is that it is the duty of establishment institutions, such as Yale, not to celebrate the status quo, but to challenge it. By word and example, he taught, universities-and especially Yale - should think of themselves not simply as places for higher education, but as centers of moral purpose in an uncertain world.
People privileged to study at places like Yale, Bill said, too often get there by being smart and accomplished, but also risk averse. And so they end up living lives not of service, but of risk aversion. So it is that the most privileged often end up serving the most privileged. The problem, as Bill saw it, is that too many people stand for nothing, and "If you stand for nothing," he'd say, "you'll fall for anything." Instead, they enter the ratrace, never recognizing, in Bill's words, "that even if you win the ratrace, you're still a rat."
The university's mission, he believed, is to change that dynamic. "The goal of education" he wrote, "is not to drive a wedge between thought and action, but rather to enable action of a higher kind:" People should not need Yale to tell them who they are, Bill liked to say. Instead, Yale should tell people who they should be: not just servants of power, but people with the vision and courage to speak truth to that power.
In Bill Coffin, we saw a living example of someone who dared to live his own message. A Yale-trained patrician, he became a radical by stating what others were afraid to voice. With Randy, he lived a life devoted to simple truths: preaching love, and fighting war, poverty, and hate. By leading the Freedom Ride, by joining the trial of the Boston Five, by speaking out before others were ready-- against the Vietnam war, nuclear weapons, and for gay rights-- he sent the message that we who are privileged must think dangerous thoughts. And once we have such thoughts, our duty is to act on them. In the words of his favorite hymn, "Once to every man and nation, comes a moment to decide --in the strife of truth and falsehood for the good or evil side."
Bill loved Yale and he loved America, but he saw his role not as celebrating them, but as engaging them in a "lover's quarrel." The greatest act of patriotism, in his eyes, was to confront the institutions that you respect and the people you love. Kingman Brewster saw this, in a letter he wrote to Bill in a moment of high dudgeon: "You are a distinctive product of this institution. You might have happened elsewhere but not bloody likely. Now you're having an impact on your generation and those to follow, which is precisely in the Yale tradition which I proclaim and you deny."
Bill's greatest impact came not from his stirring sermons or his high-profile stands, but from his enormous capacity for friendship, doled out in countless private moments of counseling and compassion. When my sister was agonizing over whether to work at a Wall Street law firm or legal aid, she called Bill's office. Without hesitation, he told her to come by and that he would take her to dinner, a visit that changed the path of her life. As I became older, I found, incredibly, that Bill had become my friend. He never ceased to praise me, or-after I became a government official and dean-to goad me not to get too complacent or comfortable.
I heard that Bill had died from one of my own students, Jamie Dycus, Bill's Vermont neighbor. As Jamie and I sat talking, we realized that we had met Bill forty years apart, but that each of us had been profoundly changed by his moral example.
Bill liked to close his sermons with this quote from John Ruskin: 'The primary reward for human toil is not what you get for it but what you become by it.' For your human toil, William Sloane Coffin, you became our hero--our soul and our heart's inspiration-and for that, Bill, we will never forget you.