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His two roles in life: doctor and dad

Psychiatrist Robert Coffer testified at numerous prominent trials, but when he came home, he taught the neighborhood kids to play ball.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 19, 2002


BEACH PARK -- Caroline Collier was playing golf one day with her husband, Ken, and her father, Robert H. Coffer Jr. All three had 200-yard shots to the hole.

Caroline and Ken laid up with a smaller club, avoiding the sand traps that lay in front of the green. But Dr. Coffer pulled out a large club and swung away.

The ball landed in the trap.

"Dad," Caroline asked, wondering why a man in his 70s thought he could drive the ball that far, "why did you go for it?"

"I just think one of these days I might put it on," Dr. Coffer replied.

In life, as in that game of golf, her father always believed in going for it, Caroline Collier said.

Bob Coffer, a respected psychiatrist, died July 8 at the age of 79.

"He was a man who never regretted anything," Caroline Collier said. "He did feel he was very blessed to be able to do what he loved to do -- which was psychiatry -- have a wife that he loved, have a family that he loved, live in a town that he grew to love and have wonderful friends."

Dr. Coffer practiced psychiatry in Tampa for 40 years, working in private practice and with St. Joseph's and Tampa General hospitals. He was a member of the Hillsborough County Medical Society, a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and the charter president of the Tampa Psychiatric Society.

His expert testimony played a role in many prominent trials, such as the 1990 Claire Moritt trial, in which a teenager was charged with giving birth to and subsequently drowning her infant child. Dr. Coffer testified for the prosecution, arguing that Moritt knew what she was doing was wrong.

He also testified in the case of Billy Ferry, convicted of killing five people in a grocery store by dousing them with gasoline and setting fire to them in 1983. Ferry was not competent to stand trial, Dr. Coffer argued, and should be hospitalized.

"He was very ethical, very moral," Collier said. "He would go and examine the people and testify what he felt."

Dr. Coffer attended Emory University Medical School in his hometown of Atlanta and held internships and residencies at the University of Virginia Hospital and the Neuropsychiatric Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich.

For Dr. Coffer, becoming a mental health professional had been a calling since childhood. His mother suffered bouts of depression, and he saw firsthand the physical pain it could cause.

"Even as a young child, that was something that he wanted to try to correct," Collier said. "He wanted to delve into the mind to see how he could help fix the mind, which would then help fix the body."

Following a stint as a lieutenant in the Navy, Coffer moved to Tampa in 1954 to begin a 40-year career practicing psychiatry and neurology.

Dr. Coffer was so dedicated, Collier said, that when it was his turn to be on call, "he didn't go anywhere. He would stay at the house, answer the phone. We could be on vacation or something, but he would not go -- he would stay home and wouldn't even go out to dinner."

Coffer always made time to volunteer at his churches, Hyde Park Presbyterian Church and Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church. In retirement, he volunteered with the Meals on Wheels program.

He spent much of his leisure time with his children and other kids in the neighborhood.

"He would come back at 6:30 p.m.; all the other fathers would have been home by 5," Collier said. "He would change his clothes, and go out. He taught every kid in the neighborhood how to throw a ball, how to throw a pass. He was just that kind of person -- even though he had worked all day, he knew that it was now time to spend time with the family."

A member of the Tampa Yacht and Country Club, Dr. Coffer often took his family out fishing for black grouper. He was also an avid golfer in retirement, shooting a pair of holes-in-one.

He was a history and genealogy buff, and liked to tell about how one of his direct ancestors was a next-door neighbor of George Washington. The two attended the same church and once ran against each other for deacon. "They both lost," Collier said.

Dr. Coffer's health had deteriorated since being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. Even recently, he maintained a positive outlook, Collier said.

"I had 79 wonderful years," he told her. "If I have to go now, through pancreatic cancer, that's okay, because I had 79 wonderful, full years."

Dr. Coffer's survivors include his wife of 51 years, Sara; a son, Clay; two daughters, Catherine and Caroline Collier; Caroline's husband, Ken; four grandchildren, Christina, Jennifer, Amanda and Robert; one great-grandson, Darnell Robert; two nieces, Carole Lunde of Athens, Ga., and Alice Brown of Arlington, Va.; and a godson, Harvey Shepherd of Atlanta.

-- Writer Jay Cridlin can be reached at 226-3374 or cridlin@sptimes.com.

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