“You sir, amaze me, in that in the middle of your loss you can reach out and help our wounded heroes. It is people such as yourself, who make these selfless acts, that overwhelm me and frankly, brings tears to my eyes.”
The words of Tweed Fox, co-founder of the Wounded Marine Fund, speak volumes to the character of long-time Darien resident and retired Marine Gene Coyle. People who know Coyle speak of an even-tempered man who approaches problems with a pragmatism reflective of the time and place he grew up — in the Bronx during the Great Depression.
In Fox’s above quote, he refers to Coyle’s directive to send money to wounded marines through the Darien Republican Town Committee in the name of his recently deceased wife, Joan. Gene and Joan had been married since 1957 when she died earlier this year, and her funeral was attended by hundreds of people who were touched by the couple and their warm kindness.
When it comes to talking about himself, reluctance fills his demeanor. A humble man — but with every right to be the opposite — Coyle has declined to be featured in the Darien Times Memorial Day issue in the past, and offered other names to feature.
But this year he decided to share his story.
Into the service
On Dec. 7, 1941, 12-year-old Eugene Coyle, oldest of three, wore his Sunday best as he prepared to attend his cousin’s wedding. A day of celebration quickly turned bittersweet, when word came over the radio that Japanese airplanes had attacked the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor. The man marrying Coyle’s cousin had just graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and he would soon be called to duty.
“The military was respected beyond belief” in those days, Coyle said. By the time he was 16, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. His parents, however, didn’t sign off until he was 17.
“There wasn’t a guy in our parish who wasn’t enlisting,” Coyle recalled. By 1945, the war was waning, and Coyle said he was eager to sign up so he wouldn’t miss any action.
“I was afraid it would end before I could get in,” he said. “In fact, the shooting did end.”
While in basic training at Paris Island, Coyle experienced combat for the first time in uniform. Although it was not against an enemy from another country, but rather, a bully from Mississippi named Phillips who “didn’t like yankees.”
“He was a piece of work,” Coyle said. “He picked me out as his target of opportunity. I finally invited him outside, which was against the rules — you could get court marshaled for fighting.”
Regardless of the danger, “we went at it,” he said. Coyle, a former boxer, broke his hand in the fight, and Phillips’ face bore the wrath of this Irish righty from the Bronx.
Despite potential punishment, Coyle’s drill sergeant “loved it,” he said. “He was a tough son of a b****.”
After a few months healing in the hospital, Coyle returned to duty. His skills with the rifle did not earn him an expert medal, he said, but he was an expert with a pistol, breaking the range record and earning a spot on the pistol team. He also taught small arms to newly commissioned second lieutenants at the Basic School in Quantico, Va.
Then came the Korean War in 1950. Coyle was called back from the reserves, but this time, he wanted to learn something different.
“I’d like to be able to ride around instead of walk around, and I said, ‘I think I’d like to go into tanks’,” he said.
He was quickly promoted to corporal in the 8th Tank Battalion at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Before he knew it, he was a tank commander and promoted to sergeant.
Driving a tank in those days was a totally different ballgame than the tanks of today, Coyle said. Back then, the commander would sit above the driver and tap on the driver’s helmet with his boot to tell him to turn — a tap on the right meant turn right. A fast succession of taps meant turn sharp and fast.
“It was so noisy, you couldn’t hear anything,” he said of the Sherman tanks.
But before he could be deployed overseas to fight, something tragic happened. Something tragic that turned out to be a hidden blessing.
Coyle’s father died. Since he was the eldest son, he was discharged before deployment. The rest of his battalion went on to Korea. Most of them did not return home alive.
Coyle remembered his mother telling him, “Your father’s dying saved your life.”
Time at Time
A combination of sagacity and serendipity has defined much of Coyle’s 84 years. His five decades of work at Time magazine began when he was 14 years old, after he helped a woman with her husband who had suffered a stroke. The woman’s son hired him as a copyboy, where Coyle worked as he attended high school.
When he went into the Marines, Time paid his mother the difference in pay between his Time salary and his military stipend. They did the same for him when he was called back during the Korean War.
“That’s why they called it ‘Paradise Publishing’,” Coyle said of Time. “That was the name on the street. Everybody wanted to work there.”
In 1956, Coyle met his future wife, Joan, for the first time in an elevator at the Time Life building. By their second date, Coyle knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. And he expressed this desire with a proposal.
“You must be crazy, I don’t even know you!” Coyle said of Joan’s response. Despite her apprehension, the couple fell fast in love. They were married a year later, and the pair spent over five decades getting to know each other.
It was the best of times at Time, Coyle said. The company offered him money for college, despite his receipt of two GI bills for school that left money in his pocket after enrollment at Fordham University.
“They said, ‘We don’t care, we’re giving you money’,” he remembered. “What a difference, eh?”
After 10 years of night school, getting married and having their first child, Nancy, Coyle graduated with a degree in history and journalism. Later, Time brought him and his family to Montreal, where he helped establish the company’s Canadian operations. There his second daughter, Laura, was born.
In 1966 he found his way to Holmes Avenue in Darien. He’s been in town ever since.
“I think that the citizens set a standard for volunteerism,” Coyle said of the town. “Everything is run, pretty much, by volunteers in the town. It’s amazing… how qualified many of these people are.”
Even before retirement from Time in 1993 — after 50 years working for the company, with his last position being worldwide director of operations — Coyle’s commitment to serving his community and his fellow warriors has remained resolute.
For roughly three decades, he’s helped raise money for wounded marines through his work with the Marine Corps League. While he considers his volunteerism “selfish” — because he gets “great satisfaction” helping — those he helps would argue the opposite.
At one event, he and fellow volunteers raised $75,000 to be split evenly between three wounded marines who were injured in Iraq. They had a goal of $30,000.
“We had a terrific turnout,” he said.
Fellow Marine Corps League members Tim Huff and John Rubino speak highly of Coyle’s dedication to veterans.
“You can always count on the guy,” Rubino said. “He’s the first one to pick up a phone, attend a parade or a funeral service. He’s always there.”
Huff echoed his brother’s sentiment.
“One of the major reasons I joined the Marine Corps League was because of Gene,” Huff said.
Coyle also works (or rather, volunteers) as a Justice of the Peace, offering wedding services. He charges nothing to marry a couple. All he asks is that they make a donation to help wounded marines.
“I’ve never gotten a check for less than $100,” he said. One man, a marine from Pennsylvania, came to Coyle to get married and donated $1,000.
Coyle’s volunteerism doesn’t stop there. He’s a longtime member of the Representative Town Meeting, sitting on the Town Government Structure & Administration Committee and is the vice chairman of the Ethics Committee.
He said he thinks the town does “a pretty good job” at managing its budget year-to-year. He would, however, like to see more senior housing for Darien residents. He also would have liked Allen-O’Neill homes, now called The Heights at Darien, to keep its original name and designation, which were both tied to veterans. The Heights was recently redeveloped as a partial affordable housing community.
He was also president of the Republican Club of Darien, which he retired from 10 years ago. For years he was also a member of the Darien Republican Town Committee, where he actively recruited members and spread a nonpartisan message throughout the area with tact and respect for alternative opinions.
But his heart remains with helping veterans, especially during a time when veteran services continue to face cuts while these same men and women are asked to do more with less. When asked if he would enlist today if he were 18, he was hesitant to respond.
“Under these circumstances, I don’t know,” he said. “I think that we are never, in my lifetime or yours, are we ever going to solve the problems over there.”
At the end of the day, it’s something wholesome and honest, and almost surreal, that drives Coyle. There’s a no-nonsense nature to his speech that lures a listener in with his steady cadence and accurate diction.
At his home on Echo Drive, the Gaelic word “fáilte”, meaning “welcome”, can be found in several locations. There’s a golden retriever, Roger, and a dark gray cat, Charlie, who keep Coyle and his family company.
Nancy and her son, Gannon, moved to Darien from Washington state to help with Joan as her health declined. The three remain strong examples of family pulling together and remaining strong when the hour becomes dark.
Gene Coyle, with his rugged marine persona, driving a red Suburban with a Semper Fi sticker, exudes the kind of gentleman nature that today only exists mostly in literature. In one breath he recites the poem Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling, and in the next breath he’s offering advice on shooting a pistol.
A true renaissance man, his character could be summed up in his speech he gave to the RTM on why he should be on the Ethics Committee.
“What I told them was, if you had had eight years with the Sisters of Charity, and then went on to the Irish Christian Brothers, then you had two tours in the Marine Corps and then went on from there to the Jesuits, something happens to you,” he said, his eyes brightening with a rare glimpse of pride. “It does. It really does.”
Originally published in The Darien Times.