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Death of Capitol reporting veteran Coffman saddens, surprises former colleagues

There was a note of sadness this morning in the basement press rooms at the state Capitol, as word of veteran political reporter Jack Coffman’s death made the rounds.

Coffman, 71, had been a tenacious, respected Capitol reporter for the Pioneer Press until he retired in 1999. He died Monday after collapsing at a St. Paul photography studio.

Dennis Lien, working in the Pioneer Press’ basement office, pointed out the ancient wooden desk that Coffman used over the years. WCCO Radio’s Eric Eskola said he was surprised and saddened to lose the former colleague and competitor.

“He’d come back from an event and tell us about it in the most hilarious and colorful language; he always had a pet name for everybody and he’d get us all going nuts with laughter at his descriptions,” recalled another colleague, Jim Ragsdale, longtime Pioneer Press Capitol reporter who is now an editorial writer. “Then he’d write the story and it would be very straight and fair, with none of that hilarious commentary that he’d give us earlier.”

Ragsdale noted that Coffman’s knowledge about the building of the Capitol: “He’d give tours to friends and describe all the great elements. In the early days of the Internet, we even had a video online: ‘Jack Coffman’s Tour of the Capitol.’ He loved it and felt that every day he walking into that building was a good day.”

Coffman retired soon after Jesse Ventura was elected governor. “He turned to me and said: ‘You take him,'” Ragsdale recalled.

Upstairs, outside the Senate Chambers, former House Speaker Bob Vanasek called Coffman a “bloodhound, with a real nose for news.”

“He was one of those old-time reporters who went out and dug for a story; he didn’t just take what was handed out by the politicians,” said Vanasek, now a lobbyist. “Jack wasn’t afraid to step on some toes and write the controversial stories. That meant he wasn’t always the most popular reporter, but he was respected.

“I could always tell when he was on to a big story. He was usually a mild-mannered guy, but you could sense the intensity when he had something big. There was a look in his eyes. You could tell.”

Coffman had also worked as a reporter and editor at the then Minneapolis Tribune, before crossing the river to the Pioneer Press in the mid-1980s. I knew him as the state editor at the Tribune, where he had a great news sense in finding important and interesting stories throughout the region.

A full obituary is scheduled to run Wednesday in the Pioneer Press.

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