Even in defeat, Coakley resonates with classmates

Yesterday, Martha Coakley ’75 narrowly lost a special election held to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, a race in which she had initially seemed poised to be the first woman senator of Massachusetts.

It wasn’t the first time Coakley had lost a potentially groundbreaking vote: during her senior year at the College, she had run to be president of the first fully coeducational class to graduate from Williams. She lost the contentious election, but continues to command the respect of her classmates 35 years down the road.

“She’s much admired by members of her class and others in the Williams community for her achievements,” said Nancy McIntire, who was associate dean at the College during Coakley’s undergraduate years. “A number of them worked on her campaign, whether or not they were in Massachusetts.”

Growing up in North Adams, Coakley came to the College after attending St. Joseph’s School and Drury High School. Her late father worked at an insurance agency that currently exists as Coakley, Pierpan, Dolan & Collins, a partner of the Williamstown Savings Bank.

In 1971, Coakley matriculated at the College with 134 other women in a class totaling 472 students. This pioneering class of female first-years at the College represented the culmination of a coeducational initiative that began with an exchange program between Williams and Vassar in 1969 – the same year that saw advances in race issues at the College after the takeover of Hopkins Hall by members of the Williams Afro-American Society.

After making Sage A her home, Coakley participated in a slew of activities, among them the debate team, the Gargoyle Society, WCFM and the search committee that selected John Chandler to replace John Sawyer as College president.

“It was clear back then that Martha was someone to reckon with,” wrote Andrea Axelrod ’75 in a guest blog post on www.marthacoakley.com. “From her early days, I saw Martha recognize she had a gift and a responsibility to use it for public service. She has honed and developed a superb package of assets: articulate thought augmented by articulate language; fearlessness; empathy; intellectual curiosity, and that magic combo in politics: sensitivity, but with a strong hide.”

Axelrod, one of Coakley’s closest college friends, also wrote of Coakley’s penchant for trivia, wordplay and old Broadway songs. Other former classmates underscored Coakley’s blend of ability and levity. “Given, her simple, small-town background, practicality informs her life,” said Chris Alberti ’75, a Republican and committed Coakley supporter. “But she’s also a lot of fun – early in her career she was driving around in a sporty Mazda convertible – which doesn’t always come across in her role as a prosecutor.”

In 1975, Coakley graduated from the College cum laude and proceeded to receive her J.D. from Boston University, before establishing herself in a highly successful private law practice. In 1986, she stepped into public service as assistant district attorney in the Lowell District Court office. Eight years later, Coakley became the first woman to be elected district attorney for Middlesex County. At the beginning of 2007, she was sworn in as the first female attorney general of Massachusetts.

“Martha is uniquely capable,” Alberti said. “She was part of a cohort of wonderful women in our class who were strong but not strident; she helped make Williams what it is today – the most successful by far of the schools that became coeducational in the 1970s. Martha’s pioneering spirit developed from her Williams days.”

Both Alberti and Axelrod noted that one of Coakley’s gifts is balancing her public endeavors – whether heading the Child Abuse Protection Unit in Middlesex; advancing legislation in organized crime, public corruption and labor; or recovering $610 million for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after the Big Dig ceiling collapse – with involvement in her friends’ lives. Alberti described how Coakley helped him with introductions and advice when he moved from New York to Boston in 1991; Axelrod blogged on www.womenforcoakley.com about years of joint song items and goofy gift exchanges.

McIntire, the first woman to hold a deanship at the College, also spoke of a sustained friendship. “We’ve kept in touch since her graduation,” she said. “I’ve been pleased to watch her achieve so much in her career.”

Coakley’s continuing contribution to the College community includes serving as an associate class agent, and later as co-head agent leading up to her 25th reunion, working under head class agent Anton Bestebreurtje ’75.

“I didn’t know Martha at all in school, but she has since become one of my dearest friends in the class,” Bestebreurtje said. “She and her husband, Tom, are very nice people. She wouldn’t mind sitting down and talking to someone and only later having them find out that she’s AG for the state.”

Beyond serving her graduating class, Coakley co-taught a Winter Study course, “Law and Social Policy,” in 2002, 2003 and 2006. In 1999, she was awarded a Bicentennial Medal, an accolade conferred upon distinguished alumni of the College.

Soon after that, she was Convocation speaker for the Class of 2004. In a talk entitled “The Pursuit of Happiness in the New Millennium: What if the Hokey Pokey Really IS What It’s All About?” Coakley told seniors that “the people who are most happy are those whose pursuit of happiness is intimately enmeshed with doing something different and making a difference.”

She may not be a senator, but Coakley isn’t just making a difference: She is also truly a different kind of leader to scores within the College community, the Commonwealth and the country.