J. Russell Coffey, the oldest known surviving U.S. veteran of World War I, has died. The retired teacher, one of only three U.S. veterans from the "war to end all wars," was 109.
Coffey died Thursday at the Briar Hill Health Campus in North Baltimore, where he had lived for the past four or five years, said Gaye Boggs, nursing director at the nursing home. No cause of death has been determined, she said Friday. His health began failing in October.
"We're sure going to miss him," Boggs said. "He was our most famous resident, that's for sure."
More than 4.7 million Americans joined the military from 1917-1918. Coffey never saw combat because he was still in basic training when the war ended.
The two remaining U.S. veterans are Frank Buckles, 106, of Charles Town, W.Va.; and Harry Richard Landis, 108, of Sun City Center, Fla., according to the Veterans Affairs Department. In addition, John Babcock, 107, of Spokane, Wash., served in the Canadian army and is the last known Canadian veteran of the war.
Interest in World War I survivors grew over the past year as their numbers dwindled. The last living links to the war, the U.S. veterans received honors and did a flurry of interviews. In May, Buckles was a grand marshal of the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C., riding in the back of a car.
But Coffey once confided to his daughter, Betty Jo Larsen, that he wished people would remember his contributions rather than his old age. "He told me 'even a prune can get old,'" she said last spring. She died in September.
A rich, fulfilling life
Coffey had enlisted in the Army while he was a student at Ohio State University in October 1918, a month before the Allied powers and Germany signed a cease-fire agreement. He was discharged a month after the war ended.
His two older brothers fought overseas, and he was disappointed at the time that the war ended before he shipped out. But he told The Associated Press in April 2007: "I think I was good to get out of it."
Born Sept. 1, 1898, Coffey played semipro baseball in Akron, earned a doctorate in education from New York University, taught in high school and college and raised a family.
He delivered newspapers as a youngster and would read the paper to immigrants, his daughter said. "That was the beginning of him being a teacher," she said.
Coffey returned to Ohio State University after he left the Army and received two degrees there.
He said he loved teaching. "I could see results," he said. "I could see improvement."
He taught junior high and high school in Phelps, Ky., and Findlay. He then taught physical education at Bowling Green State University from 1948 until 1969.
He had a remarkable memory and was independent, his daughter said. He drove his car until he was 104, and lived in his own home until a year later. He was a swimmer and credited healthy eating and exercise for his longevity.
His wife, Bernice, whom he married in 1921, died in 1993. Larsen was their only child.
Among the other World War I veterans who died this year were Emiliano Mercado del Toro, 115, who ranked as world's oldest person for the last weeks of his life, and Charlotte Winters, 109, the last known American female veteran of the war.