Ohio is home to oldest living WW1 vet

By John Seewer Associated Press Writer

NORTH BALTIMORE, Ohio – J. Russell Coffey gets an occasional autograph request or visit from someone wanting to know more about his life. He’s adored by the nurses who bring him cups of water and push his wheelchair.

The 108-year-old former college professor is the oldest known surviving U.S. veteran of World War I. He sees his status as an honor but doesn’t consider himself a celebrity.

He joined the Army because he didn’t want to get drafted and it was the patriotic thing to do.

“I just didn’t think anything about it,” Coffey said in an interview last week. “They had us all in uniforms and we did a lot of drilling. I didn’t mind it.”

More than 4.7 million Americans joined the military from 1917-1918. There are only two other U.S. veterans still alive from the “war to end all wars,” according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Coffey, born Sept. 1, 1898, didn’t see action overseas. He 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 disappointed at the time. I think I was good to get out of it,” he says now.

The other known surviving American soldiers are Frank Buckles, 106, of Charles Town, W.Va., and Harry Landis, 107, of Sun City Center, Fla., according to the Veterans Affairs Department. John Babcock, 102, from Puget Sound, Wash., served in the Canadian Army.

Coffey played semipro baseball, earned a doctorate’s degree in education from New York University, taught in high school and college and raised a family.

He drove his car until he was 104. He lived on his own until three years ago.

Coffey never talked much about the military, said his 85-year-old daughter, Betty Jo Larsen. “That wasn’t his primary interest,” she said.

He loved to visit foreign countries, calling Ireland his favorite. “They were really jolly people,” he said.

Today he lives at the Blakely Care Center, a nursing home in northwest Ohio where there are few memories of his past inside his room.

A small American flag attached to a stick sits atop his dresser. Three photos of his family’s red cabin in Michigan are taped to the furniture.

And on the room’s only window is a Bowling Green State University sticker from the school where he taught physical education from 1948 until 1969.

He loved teaching.

“I could see results,” he said. “I could see improvement.”

His thoughts come slowly now. His skin is paper thin and tears easily. He has trouble hearing, especially with his left ear. Sometimes, a question is repeated without a response.

Yet, ask something that sparks a memory and his head rises up and his eyes open slightly.

He doesn’t answer right away when he’s asked what he is most proud of in his life. “I’ll have to think about that,” he said.

“I was proud of everything that was good that I was doing,” he said, resting his head in his right hand.

A few minutes later, his head bobbed and he fell asleep.