Anna Coit, North Stonington's grande dame, dies at age 106

North Stonington — Anna North Coit, prolific poet, founding member of the North Stonington Historical Society and a role model to friends of many ages, died Wednesday morning at Apple Rehab in Mystic. She was 106.
Coit was one of the first female editors at Time magazine and never stopped writing on her yellow legal pads, even after a stroke weakened her hand. For more than 30 years, she composed the “North Stonington Notes” newsletter that is sent to members of the town’s historical society.
“To her enormous credit,” said Mac Turner, a friend of Coit, “when she died this (Wednesday) morning, sitting on the table next to her was a stack of pads and poetry she was working on for her next book.”

Her death came a day before she was to receive a plaque designating her as the 2014 North Stonington Poet Laureate. It was supposed to be a surprise: Coit was set to visit the historical society for lunch as she did most weeks, and First Selectman Nicholas Mullane was going to present her with the honor.

But on Tuesday, Coit canceled the lunch because she was not feeling strong enough to make the trip from Mystic to North Stonington.

Coit’s health had gradually declined toward the end of her life, but things only became particularly bad in the last week, according to her friend Frank Eppinger.

Even as she lost mobility, “her mind was clear until the end,” he said. “She used to say she had the mind of an 18-year-old locked in a hundred-year-old body.”

Although a successful amateur poet — she published one book and was working on another at the time of her death — friends remember the beloved North Stonington resident as something more.

“It’s hard to say any one thing was a big part of her life, (because) she had so many things going on in her life,” said Turner.

Coit, a descendant of southeastern Connecticut’s prominent Palmer family, helped found the North Stonington Historical Society in 1967 and the Avalonia Land Conservancy. She was an early member of the garden club and a naturalist. She made drawings and painted with watercolors. She was a member of Mensa International and, until Wednesday, the oldest living alum of Vassar College.

Eppinger called her “very well read.” She never canceled her subscriptions to the New Yorker and the Atlantic, and she frequently read The New York Times in addition to local papers.

He described her writing as “succinct and crisp” and said her recent reading at the Mystic Arts Center was standing room only.

In an August interview with The Day, Coit described how she developed as a poet.

“When I started writing poems ... I thought everything had to be rhymed,” she said. “And then I found out that wasn’t so at all. The idea is to have an idea, and something that makes it extra clear. And they can be very short.”

Coit was also an impressive storyteller and had a keen memory.

In August, she was the grand marshal of the Battle of Stonington bicentennial parade and could recall same the parade 100 years earlier, which featured horses instead of cars.

And Turner said that when he made unexpected phone calls to Coit from places like Washington State and Yosemite, she was quick to recommend lodges, nearby towns and restaurants by name, even though it had been decades since she was in the area.

“She has an incredible ability to remember minutiae,” he said. “It was startling at times.”

Eppinger said he did not believe anyone was with Coit when she died, but she’d had visitors in the nursing home the night before.

A Montclair, N.J., native, Coit had spent childhood summers on a relative’s farm on Pendleton Hill Road. Since moving to North Stonington in the 1950s or 1960s, Coit cultivated “a very wide group of friends,” said Eppinger. “Hundreds of them, really.”

Both Eppinger and Turner said her friends were not only other elderly people but spanned a wide spectrum of ages, including local teenagers who would visit her at Apple Rehab.

“People liked her stories,” he said. “But I think what people really liked was how she made everyone feel important or wanted.”

Even the staff at the nursing home felt connected to Coit, who, her friends say, always played down questions about herself to focus on the other person. Eppinger said that when a staff member helped Coit, she would begin asking about their family and what they had been doing recently.

She continued to drive until around age 100, even at night, and would offer younger friends with mobility issues rides to evening meetings of the historical society.

“It was unreal how she wouldn’t allow her age to become a debilitating condition,” said Eppinger.

Coit was also so well-loved, said Turner, because of her “very, very positive attitude.” He called her a “very interesting person” and a role model to many.

Her faith — Coit was a practicing Quaker who attended Religious Society of Friends meetings in Westerly until she lost mobility — may have played a role in earning her so much respect.

In a small agricultural community like North Stonington, local issues can quickly turn contentious and personal. Although Coit cared passionately about some subjects, like protecting town farmers’ rights, Turner said she always kept discussion at town meetings friendly.

Eppinger attributed that to a Quaker belief in “gentle persuasion.”

When Coit applied that tactic during debates, she would listen respectfully to others’ arguments.

Then, she would “very carefully and kindly tear those arguments apart,” said Eppinger, and by the end the other person would “either change their mind or they’re reduced in stature.”

Eppinger, who is the current president of the North Stonington Historical Society, said the loss was not just a personal one but something that would affect the entire town.

“She was an icon, really, in this community, and the last of her kind, the senior person in the town,” he said.

“It’s a void that will be hard to fill.”

k.catalfamo@theday.com

Twitter: @kccatalfamo




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