An obsessive fight, hard-waged, can wear a man out. Obsession’s cause, indistinguishable and perhaps irrelevant, dissipates after accomplishment. But accomplishment can define a life.
Doyle Coffey was fierce and still is, in his benign and jovial way. The 87-year-old man has sacrificed vacations, personal time, and his health to fulfill his quest.
Coffey’s obsession with Eastern Arizona College’s Payson campus drove him for 14 years while he, along with the college’s dean, Don Allen, fought to raise money to build a campus in Payson.
It takes more than two, of course, to build a college. Newspaper clips from 1995 show hoards of Payson students holding signs in front of a bus that carried them to Phoenix to lobby the legislature for money to build a Payson college campus.
“There were a lot of people involved in this besides Don and me,” Coffey said. “But we were the ones who kept everyone’s feet to the fire.”
The college originally ran out of a tiny strip mall location, with walls that vibrated when the neighboring washer and dryer ran.
Allen died a month before the campus officially opened. Some close to him speculate that fighting for the college hastened his death.
Coffey, who once raised money for the college door-to-door with a walker and a broken hip, says the fight put him in his wheelchair.
Speaking with a scratchy voice and wearing smudged bifocals, Coffey now sits, neatly dressed, in his electric wheelchair.
He sits with his back toward the golf course he never had time to play on, a welcome mat with a cup of coffee and the word “coffee” at the foot of an empty brown reclining chair. His wife, Margaret, sits in a matching chair.
Coffey lived through the Great Depression, in Oklahoma’s dust bowl, and was once hospitalized for a year with tuberculosis.
Born in Oklahoma in 1921, Coffey grew up a farm boy in a town called Sweetwater, near the Texas border. After earning a degree in agriculture from Oklahoma State University, Coffey found a job in Casa Grande and moved there in 1947.
Casa Grande in those days was primitive, Coffey says. The streets were dirt and the population was roughly 3,000. But Coffey was there for the cotton fields. He inspected the fields for insects, then decided which chemicals could kill them.
In 1958, Coffey contracted tuberculosis and spent a year in the hospital. The doctors told him to find a new career, like teaching school.
But you can’t keep a farm boy out of the fields, and he returned anyway. “I needed money,” he said.
On New Year’s Eve 1960, Coffey met Margaret, and the couple married one month later, in February 1961. “I thought I’d found a prince,” Margaret said. Both had been married before, but Coffey says, “we think it’s going to last.”
Trying to heed his doctor’s orders to stay off the fields, Coffey earned his teaching certification. He began his academic career in Coolidge, but eventually found a job in Casa Grande.
During summers, Coffey kept working in the fields. “He made more money in the summer checking fields than in school,” Margaret said.
Still, Coffey said, it wasn’t necessarily the money that inspired his dual employment. He liked staying busy.
After retiring to Payson in 1982 with plans of playing golf, Coffey first helped Payson School District pass a bond that failed twice before voters ultimately approved it.
The number would foreshadow a future proposition Coffey worked to pass, when Gila County voters were asked to pay a tax to fund their From page 1C
college. It too would fail twice before passing in 1990.
In 1985, Coffey was asked to sit on the college’s advisory board. Once a month for board meetings, Coffey drove two hours from Payson to Globe on a dirt road, eventually wearing out a pickup.
The county is gerrymandered, Coffey says, so that the south has more representation than the north. That power carried over to Eastern Arizona College, which provided classes in Gila County. Gila Community College did not yet exist — that battle is another tale to be told.
At every juncture, Coffey found himself asking the board, “What’s that going to do for Payson?”
Finally, one day Globe board members said, “If you damn people in Payson ever tell us what you want, we’ll help you get it.”
At that point, the idea for a Payson college campus was born.
“Come to my bedroom,” Coffey says, leading the way in his electric wheelchair. “It’s where I take all the pretty girls.” Hanging on his wall is a golden shovel — the ceremonial shovel that moved the first granules of dirt to make way for Payson’s college campus.
A picture on his wall shows then-Gov. Fife Symington signing a $1-million appropriation for the college in 1998. In 1995, the legislature approved the first $1 million.
In 1999, Coffey received the Payson Roundup’s Man of the Year award. That plaque hangs on his wall, too, along with a picture of a young Margaret, dark-haired and proud.
“OK, you’ve seen my treasure trove,” he said, aiming his wheelchair out of the bedroom, and into the kitchen where Margaret is talking on the telephone, and then back into the living room.
“I knew I had a selling job to get this done,” Coffey said. “I talked to anybody that would listen to me.”
In 1990, Coffey and other college officials convinced voters to approve a tax to fund Eastern Arizona College satellite campuses around Gila County, including Payson.
According to a news article from the time, northern county voters doubted the college’s benefits outweighed its costs. The measure failed in Payson, though Pine and Strawberry voters overwhelmingly passed it.
“I had people come up to me and just give me hell,” he said. “They just didn’t want their town to change.” Residents worried about students running amok in the streets.
After the tax passed, ensuring the college had enough money to run, Coffey moved on to raise money to build a real campus, with buildings not inside a shopping center.
“I (would) go down to the legislature, spend all day talking to the legislature. Some of them wouldn’t even see me, they wouldn’t even let me in to talk.”
Back in Payson, Coffey would call into the local radio station, telling people to call their representatives and demand a college. Eventually, the pressure worked and Coffey gained access.
“Yes, yes, you can see him. Stop these people from calling,” Coffey recalled legislative aides saying.
Coffey believed a campus would not only increase access to educational opportunities, but also increase community visibility.
“I can’t tell you how many meetings I attended,” Coffey said. “I spent all my retirement life on the college.”
A plaque sits on the college campus with his name on it, which Margaret points out when Coffey says he feels low.
But perhaps no amount of accolades could compensate for such sacrifice. At one point, Margaret recalled, Coffey became deeply depressed and lost 30 pounds. Doctors eventually diagnosed him with fibromylagia, a chronic condition defined by widespread pain and exhaustion.
“Well, let’s not get into that,” Coffey said.
“It’s part of the story,” Margaret responded.
Maybe Coffey was driven by a desire to improve education, but what makes a person devote themselves so fully to something that really has very little to do with them?
“I wish I knew,” Margaret said. It was probably because someone told him he couldn’t, she added.
“I wish I knew too,” said Coffey. “Margaret got to the point where she said ‘please don’t talk about the college.’”
“Well, it got to the point where it would consume the whole conversation,” Margaret said.
Coffey occasionally lunches with Pam Butterfield, now the dean of the campus for which Coffey so diligently worked.
“I’ve gotten to know Doyle since I’ve been here and we’ve become friends,” Butterfield said. “The town of Payson is very lucky to have had Doyle working on the college’s behalf.”
Curiously, Doyle showed no emotion while recollecting his years of struggle.
Instead, his recollections feature an objective account of circumstances, with even potentially bitter statements stoically delivered.
“A lot of people tried to take credit for the college,” Coffey says. That conversation is for a younger man.
“I just don’t have the energy at my age to follow through on it.”
Perhaps pondering an obsession’s source is pointless. Coffey can’t say why, exactly, he picked this specific battle to fight so hard. Maybe the simple answer is that once he started, there was no stopping.
Coffey said of his tenacity, “I’m just built that way, I guess.”
The man in Coffey’s living room is much older than the Coffey in pictures from eight years ago at the college’s dedication. Life’s end calls for reflection, and Coffey has much to reflect on.
He’s taken to writing his life’s stories, and just the other day he fixed the molding in his bathroom. People walk on the golf course in Coffey’s back yard that he hardly played on, but he doesn’t seem to pay attention. It’s a nice view, anyway.
“I like my life just the way it is right now, at 87-and-a-half,” Coffey says.
“After you get to 87 you count the half-years, too.”