Tristram Potter Coffin

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Tristram P. Coffin
Tristram P Coffin.jpg
Born (1922-02-13)February 13, 1922
San Marino, California
Died January 31, 2012(2012-01-31) (aged 89)
South Kingstown, Rhode Island
Nationality American
Occupation University Professor, Author
Known for Leading scholar of ballad texts in the 20th century
Spouse(s) Ruth Anne Hendrickson Coffin (m. 1944; d. 2011)

Tristram (“Tris”) Potter Coffin (February 13, 1922 – January 31, 2012) was a folklorist and leading scholar of ballad texts in the 20th century.[1] Dr. Coffin spent the bulk of his career at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA) where he was a full professor of English and a co-founder of the Folklore Department. He is the author of 20 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reviews.[2][3]

Academic career[edit]

Dr. Coffin was a past Associate Professor of English at Granville, Ohio's Denison University, where he taught, and coached men's tennis and soccer, for nine years (1949–58). He was elected to the Denison University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1986, and the Tristram P. Coffin Scholarship was established in his and his wife Ruth Anne’s honor in 1994 by William G. Bowen of the The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

In 1959 he moved to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he taught until his retirement. With Dr. MacEdward Leach, he co-founded the Department of Folklore at Penn, and was a full professor in both the English and Folklore departments, as well as Vice-Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

During his career he was also a guest professor at UCLA, the University of Rhode Island, Providence College, and in 1962 and 1963 was a Visiting Professor of Literature at the US Military Academy at West Point, NY, one of the first civilians to lecture there. Upon retirement, he became a Lecturer in Folklore at Providence College and at the University of Rhode Island.[4]


Dr. Coffin was a former Secretary-Treasurer of the American Folklore Society, as well as Editor of their Memoir and their Bibliographical Series and was elected a Fellow of that group.[5] A 1953 Guggenheim Fellow, he was the 20th century's top scholar of ballad texts, is listed in the Who's Who in America Millennium Edition, and was highly regarded internationally in academic circles.

He was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and Delta Upsilon fraternity. His club memberships included the Merion Cricket Club (Haverford, Pennsylvania), the URI University Club (Kingston, Rhode Island), as well as The Dunes Club and the Point Judith Country Club (both Narragansett, Rhode Island).[4]


While in Philadelphia, Dr. Coffin was active in educational television, appearing in over 100 shows on Folklore and Shakespeare. He was also host of the National Educational Television (forerunner of PBS) show, “Lyrics and Legends”, which was shown nationally, and was editor-in-charge of the “American Folklore” series for Voice of America.[4]


Dr. Coffin was an authority on English, Scottish and American ballads. His book, The British Traditional Ballad in North America, has been a standard reference text for over 50 years. In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he also published several more commercial works. His The Book of Christmas Folklore was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and The Old Ball Game: Baseball in Folklore and Fiction, Uncertain Glory - The Folklore of the American Revolution, The Female Hero, and The Proper Book of Sexual Folklore were widely read. With Dr. Hennig Cohen, he also published Folklore of the American Holidays, another standard reference. Finally, Dr. Coffin edited the book Our Living Traditions, in which folklorist Richard Dorson made the first known use of the phrase "urban legend."[6] Altogether, Dr. Coffin published 20 books and over 100 articles, encyclopedia entries, and reviews.[4]

Personal life[edit]

Coffin was born February 13, 1922 in San Marino, CA, the son of Tristram Roberts Coffin, an investment banker formerly of Richmond, Indiana and New York City, and Elsie Potter Robinson of Edgewood Farm, Wakefield, Rhode Island. He had an older sister, Trelsie Coffin Buffum Lucas (1918–1987); an older brother, Roberts Robinson Coffin, who died shortly after birth in 1920; and a younger brother, Peter Robinson Coffin (1923–1998), who was a college professor as well. He also had an older half-sister, Lydia, and half-brother, Richard, from his father's first marriage.

Coming to Rhode Island after his father died of influenza in 1927, he was educated at the Providence Country Day School, Moses Brown School (1939) in Providence, and then Haverford College (1943) outside of Philadelphia. After three years in the United States Army Air Corps and the Signal Corps during World War II, he completed an MA and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.[4]

The family’s lineage traces back 12 generations to the original settlers of Rhode Island through the Robinson, Potter, Niles and Hazard families on his maternal side.[7] Through his father, he was a direct descendant of Tristram Coffin, one of the original permanent settlers on Nantucket Island in 1660.

In 1944, he married Ruth Anne (“Rusty”) Hendrickson (May 28, 1922 – August 5, 2011), a Columbus, Ohio native and school administrator, who attended the Madeira School in McLean, Virginia and Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. They had four children, eleven grandchildren, and many dogs.[4]


Coffin loved sports. He coached the Denison University men's tennis team to five titles in the old Ohio Conference. He always felt the most satisfactory accomplishment of his career was, without ever having played soccer, taking over the Denison University men's varsity which had gone 0-10 in 1955 and, with the same soccer squad, winning the Ohio Conference league in 1956 with a 6-2-2 record. He converted what would normally have been his hobbies and recreation into part-time jobs. A varsity college tennis player and coach, he used this ability during his summer vacations from teaching as first, assistant and then, head tennis pro at the Point Judith Country Club for 23 years. He also refereed soccer for 15 years in the Philadelphia area. He authored two books about tennis: a novel, Great Game for a Girl, and a handbook for club players, How to Play Tennis with What You Already Have.[4]

Coffin had a myriad of interests, including intellectual subjects, social and societal issues, and virtually all sports (even including an extensive knowledge of thoroughbred horse racing and breeding), combined with a notable sense of humor, and a special love for Gordon Setters.


  1. ^ Fox, Margalit, "Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist, Dies at 89", New York Times on the Web. Feb 13 2012
  2. ^ World Cat
  3. ^ LIBRARY OF CONGRESS ONLINE CATALOG, Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave., SE Washington, DC 20540
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Avery-Storti Funeral Home, South Kingstown, RI, Obituary
  5. ^ American Folklore Society Death Notice
  6. ^ alt.folklore.urban Frequently Asked Questions [Part 1 of 5] [1]
  7. ^ Cole, J. R. (1889). "Biographical Sketches Of South Kingstown". History of Washington and Kent Counties, Rhode Island. New York: W.W.Preston & Co. Retrieved September 30, 2016.