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Longtime sheriff Eugene Coon dies

Thursday, October 22, 1998

By James O'Toole, Politics Editor, Post-Gazette

Moving purposefully despite his pronounced limp, Eugene L. Coon pivoted on his single crutch and walked down a darkened corridor toward the office he had reshaped in his image.

  Eugene Coon in 1995. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Mr. Coon, dressed casually in a flannel shirt and brown corduroy slacks on that February evening two years ago, had just told his deputies that he had come to the end of the public career that spanned nearly half a century in law enforcement. Mr. Coon died of cancer yesterday in his home on East Carson Street, South Side. He was 69.

During his 28 years as sheriff, he dominated and expanded the reach of that office. But Mr. Coon, elected seven times to that post, was a politician as well as a law enforcement official and, as such, had a lasting impact on the political world that shared the Allegheny County Courthouse.

At various times, he been an unsuccessful candidate for county commissioner, a chairman of the county Democratic Party, and had attracted national publicity with his refusal to foreclose on peoples' homes as the contraction of the steel industry brought a wave of sheriff's sales to Western Pennsylvania.

The timing of the end of Mr. Coon's public career wasn't entirely of his own choice. It had been hastened by a public episode involving alcohol abuse, which resulted in his conviction on a charge of harassment after he fired shots into the air outside his weekend home in Westmoreland County, alarming the guests at a birthday party being held by neighbors. But he didn't leave his post before handpicking a successor, incumbent Sheriff Pete DeFazio.

Mr. Coon was an Army veteran, serving in 1947 and 1948, then re-enlisting in 1950 for the Korean War, where he was a combat infantryman in the lst Calvary Division. His son, Kerry, noted that his father had lied about his age in order to enlist the first time around.

"When he got back, my grandfather kicked his butt for going in the first place," Kerry Coon said yesterday.

After returning from Korea, the Perry High School graduate soared through the ranks of the Pittsburgh Police Department. In 1952, he joined the department as a patrolman, advancing to sergeant in 1957. He was promoted to detective sergeant in charge of the narcotics and the vice squad in 1959.

On one improbable undercover assignment, his son recalled, Mr. Coon donned a dress and a wig to catch a mugger who had been stealing women's purses. Mr. Coon went on to serve as detective captain in charge of homicide and, by the time he left the force, was assistant superintendent and commander of the detective branch.

Kerry Coon recalled that his father had boasted that in 17 years as police officer, he had drawn his handgun only twice and had never fired it.

After he was elected over six opponents for his first term as sheriff in 1969, Coon, then 40, was seen as the same kind of rising star in politics that he had been as a police officer. But he was rebuffed in several runs for higher office.

He finished third behind incumbents Leonard C. Staisey and Tom Foerster in the Democratic primary for county commissioner in 1971. In another bid for the office in 1979, he again fell short, trailing Foerster and former commissioner, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, now coroner.

One of Coon's most enduring marks in county politics came during his term as county Democratic chairman in the early 1970s. He was one of the architects of reforms in Democratic rules that transferred the power to select the party's candidates for nomination to its elected committee members. Before that, the party's endorsements were conferred through a closed process known as the policy committee, dominated by its most senior members.

"As for the political area, he did definitely have an impact," Wecht, a sometime rival and sometime ally of Mr. Coon's, said last night. "When he became (party) chairman, it was the beginning of a new period, following the days of (Mayors) David Lawrence and Joe Barr. There were changes within the old party organization, more democratization and input from the committeemen and committeewomen. He really did make a meaningful contribution."

As recession and massive layoffs ravaged the region in the early 1980s, Mr. Coon attracted national headlines by canceling sheriff's sales of homes threatened with mortgage foreclosures. He argued that the foreclosure sales, while legal, amounted to exploitation of homeowners who lost jobs through no fault of their own. He testified in Harrisburg and Washington in favor of legislation designed to give strapped homeowners protection against losing the equity they had accumulated in their properties.

Mr. Coon won wide popular support for his initiative along with the denunciations of mortgage lenders, who dismissed one measure introduced in Harrisburg as the "Elect-Sheriff-Coon-to-Higher-Office Legislation."

Reactions to the economic dislocations of those difficult years projected Mr. Coon into the headlines again in 1984, when supporters of a jailed pastor, the Rev. D. Douglas Roth, barricaded themselves in Clairton's Trinity Lutheran Church, refusing to give it up to the Western Pennsylvania-West Virginia Synod of the Lutheran Church in America. Roth had estranged himself from his church's leaders and from the civil authorities with a series of confrontational protests and acts of civil disobedience protesting the ravages of the local economy.

In enforcing a court order to take possession of the church, Mr. Coon played a waiting game and, after a tense week, managed to evict and arrest the protesters without violence.

"I was determined not to make a martyr of Rev. Roth by kicking down doors and making a media event of it," he said at the time.

Jury Commissioner Jean Milko, who served as vice chairwoman of the county Democratic Party to Mr. Coon's chairman before succeeding him, called him "an amazing individual" who viewed himself as a police officer rather than a politician.

"Law enforcement was his life," said Milko, whose friendship with Coon would span four decades. "He was interested in many things, but law enforcement was what he talked about most. He was not so much a quote-unquote politician, but a cop at heart.

"He loved to read, and read all kinds of books, but mostly history," she said. "He was brilliant, and I learned a lot from him.

"He was strong, up to the end," said Milko, who joined family members to sit with Mr. Coon this Monday and Tuesday nights. "There was a lot of pain and agony he went through, but it never tarnished his outlook or wore him down.

"He was a hell of a man, a hell of a guy, a hell of a cop."

"He was a character who was bigger than life in a lot of ways," said Common Pleas Judge Bob Colville, who was a detective under Mr. Coon in the city police homicide division, then worked with him again when Mr. Coon was sheriff and Colville was first city police chief and then district attorney.

"When he came into homicide, the unit had been in the 17th century. He modernized it and brought it up to the level of a 20th century police department. I had a great deal of respect for him as a police officer."

Wecht praised Coon for being an effective homicide investigator, for "running a tight ship" in the sheriff's office and for implementing programs there that remain in place today.

"He really left a legacy in the law enforcement field," Wecht said.

Mr. Coon met a sharp personal setback in the summer of 1988 when his right leg was amputated after he was struck by a car while walking along a roadway in Westmoreland County. He fought back from the injury, learning to walk unaided with a prosthesis. He made only grudging concession to his disability. On the following St. Patrick's Day, he carried his trademark bagpipes in a golf cart in his annual appearance in the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade, an event that was followed by the raucous party that he made one of the fixtures on the Pittsburgh political calendar.

Handsome in his youth, Mr. Coon was a colorful figure with a policeman's sardonic sense of humor.

His son, Kerry, recalled a private side of his father, at odds with the sometimes outsized image he projected to the public.

"He was a great dad. He taught us to ride bikes, taught us horseback riding. He was quite different from the public image. He was protective of us; kept us away from politics."

In addition to son Kerry, of Banksville, Mr. Coon is survived by his wife, Donna; three other sons, Timothy of Pleasant Hills, Devin of Beechview and Eugene Jr. of Washington, D.C.; and three daughters, Laurie Sambrick of Brookline, Jennifer Wells of Mt. Lebanon and Patricia of the North Side.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Beinhauer's, 2630 W. Liberty Ave., Beechview. Arrangements were incomplete last night, but the family was planning to receive visitors at the funeral home tomorrow and Saturday. The funeral will be private.

Staff writer Cindi Lash contributed to this obituary.

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