A NEW LEAF: Marsha Coats' Real Life in Public Service

2013-10-13T13:30:00Z 2013-10-14T20:58:10Z A NEW LEAF: Marsha Coats' Real Life in Public ServiceBy Pat Colander
October 13, 2013 1:30 pm  • 

Senator Dan Coats was a person who has this legendary status that certain government leaders from Indiana just seemed to acquire. The iconic people you hear about from the Hoosier state like Congressmen Dan Burton (30 years), Lee Hamilton (34 years), Senator Birch Bayh (18 years), Otis Bowen (Governor and U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services), Robert Orr (Governor and Ambassador to Singapore). For the most part these men are regarded with reverence, serving with distinction at international posts, Washington think tanks and occasionally respected universities.

Most of us are barely aware of their political affiliation. There is never a discouraging word uttered. No disparaging remarks. The weight of history has long been on their side. Many spent their lives moving from a state office to the House of Representatives, to the Senate, to the Governor’s Mansion or the Vice-Presidency, in one case to the Supreme Court. Everyone seems to think highly of the leaders in Indiana. For the most part they tend to take the long view, stay away from lobbying and compared to their counterparts in Illinois are incorruptible.

This was the course that Senator Coats seemed to be on: After he graduated from IU law school he got a job in Fort Wayne at a life insurance company and then in 1976 to run the district office for U.S. Representative Dan Quayle. Then odd things began happening in politics even in Indiana and Dan Quayle ran for the Senate in 1980 and beat the incumbent Birch Bayh. Dan Coats ran for and won Quayle’s seat in the House. Eight years later, Dan Quayle was elected Vice-President and Coats was appointed to replace him in the Senate.

Dan Coats stayed in the Senate for 10 years and made more friends than enemies. He was generally regarded as an intelligent and trustworthy person who no Republicans in Northwest Indiana had any problem supporting. Coats made a commitment to voters that he would limit himself to two terms and did not seek re-election in 1998. Evan Bayh finished his two terms as governor and decided to run for the Senate seat his father had lost to Quayle 12 years earlier. No one seemed very surprised about Bayh's choice. Evan Bayh had a good reputation as governor, especially when it came to money, so he cruised into office in 2000.

And who could forget that Presidential election?

Let’s stop there and catch up with Mrs. Coats, Marsha Coats, who was also on a fairly classical path for a political wife, even though tradition was taking a beating out there. Well, not at first.

Marsha and Dan Coats met at Wheaton College in Illinois, which is still a conservative Christian school in a conservative suburb of Chicago, but Wheaton has a reputation and supports a value system that has always been unassailable then and now.

The college was founded in the mid-1800s by abolitionists and was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Not only did the school graduate the first African-American in Illinois in 1866, it was also the only school in the state at that time with a university level program for women. Marsha, who is the granddaughter of Nazarene ministers born into a second-generation of educated women (Olivet Nazarene in Kankakee) and raised in Waukegan, made her own decision about school. Dan, whose family was Baptist, grew up in a small town in (Jackson) Michigan. “Both of our parents left it up to us,” she says explains about their choice to attend the college. As Marsha explains it, the birth order worked in their favor because Dan is the middle child with an older sister, but Marsha was the oldest and she had a younger brother, who ended up following her to Wheaton. The school’s motto is ‘for Christ and his Kingdom,'" she says, but the school is “non-denominational so it was not just about church on Sunday but seeing faith from a much broader lens, in whatever path we walk down.”

Really, no dancing? Marsha Coats kind of smiles and says “there was a pledge we had to sign and we promised we wouldn’t drink, smoke, dance or go to the movies. But we were there because we had a very strong faith,” so it didn’t seem like they were giving anything up. And there was serious music going on at Wheaton, the Conservatory of Music is internationally renowned and while Marsha was there she sang in the school’s Oratorio Choir. Dan was the co-captain of the soccer team in college. He got his degree in political science and she graduated with a bachelor of arts in education. The Coats’ were married in September 1965. The next year, Dan Coats got drafted into the Army and served from 1966-68. “After he got out of the Army he didn’t know what he wanted to do,” she says. She suggested he use the G. I. Bill to go to law school.

Marsha Coats still seems slightly amazed that he listened to her on that one. So they lived in Indianapolis where he went to law school at Indiana University and she was a teacher and they started a family. The Coats’ had two little girls and Marsha was a part-time substitute and in 1972, Dan was hired in Ft. Wayne and they moved.

Teaching was a great career for her then; Marsha says it wasn’t a big decision. Her grandmother was a teacher, her other grandmother was a minister. “My Mom was a teacher and she was home a lot too. I didn’t want to teach when they were in pre-school, when they were babies.” The Coats’ have two daughters and a son, Laura, Lisa and Andrew. Marsha went back to teaching she taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade in the public elementary school in Ft. Wayne and discovered she enjoyed teaching middle school “They are un-formed humanity,” she says. “Not children, but it is a very formative time.” When the family moved to McLean, Virginia she taught middle school math at a private school and her children went to Langley High School, which was both “challenging and competitive.”

But this where the story gets interesting because once the kids are off to college and her husband is in the Senate, Marsha has a kind of unusual idea to go back to school and get a Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins in Clinical Community Counseling. She graduated in 1997 and had a practice.

Marsha explains that in the early part of Dan’s career the families stayed in the home state and the legislators traveled to Washington. Traveling just wasn’t as easy and as inexpensive. In the mid-80s they were able to live as a family but the mother was still the parent on duty most of the time. But as Andrew was ready for college, Marsha realized she was “still young and wanted to get a degree.” Becoming a psychologist she could work flexible hours and help people.

“I saw from Dan’s work that the breakdown of the American family was creating problems with youth and families that stemmed from the lack of a stable home environment. In counseling and using family systems theory you look at the problem and the interaction and the effect on the whole family. It is not just an isolated individual and that’s what interested me.” Marsha discovered that if you can talk with people and they see that the decisions they make, the paths they choose affect their parents, their children and even future generations. “Our grandparents have a huge impact on who we are and we will do the same for our children and our grandchildren. I wasn’t always successful but if I was able to work with a husband and wife that were just furious with each other and bring them together six months later, I really felt fulfilled in my counseling work.”

But first there is another detour. After Dan Coats leaves the Senate there is speculation that he will be the next Secretary of Defense. But that job goes to Donald Rumsfeld and Coats is sent to be the Ambassador to Germany.

This, she says, is “the experiences of a lifetime, to be the wife of an ambassador you learn so much history and living in another country is a wonderful thing.” Her favorite perk was having a language teacher. “I could read a speech in German,” she says. The people are very different there; they’re reluctant to get involved in any kind of foreign conflict. “They very much want peace and to keep things within their own borders.

“Germans value the trades highly. If you don’t go to college that’s fine. If you are an electrician or a carpenter, you can be proud of that, they are paid well and they’re happy. Every student shouldn’t have to go to college. Education ought to be diverse. People who want to get a PhD in some exotic course of study should be able to do it. There should be something for everyone; this is really a good thing to do.”

When the couple returned from Germany in 2005, Marsha resumed her work with families eventually as a counselor in private practice and in support of the office of the U.S. Senate Chaplain. Marsha also served on the Board of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services of Northern Virginia right up until her husband was drafted again.

This time to run against Senator Evan Bayh in the 2010 election.

Five days after Coats publicly committed to running for his old Senate seat, Senator Bayh announced his retirement. When I met the former senator at a luncheon a few weeks later, the first thing he told me was that he was totally surprised about Evan Bayh quitting the Senate. But the second thing he said was how proud he was of his wife who went back to school and got her master’s degree and was a clinical psychologist with her own practice.

I always wanted to meet her after that. While I admire the Margaret Thatcher’s and the Angela Markel’s of the world, I’m even more interested in women like Marsha Coats who never stopped learning, and changing, and adapting, taking a yoga class and playing with her eight grandchildren because she sets a good example. When you are part of a family system, sometimes it’s your turn to do what you want and be the person who gets to go back to school. As she says, “You’re not equipped to stay in the same job for the rest of your life,” when you graduate from college.

I feel guilty, I’m telling her. Maybe I would have been a better parent if I had stayed home more with my kids when they were little. Marsha Coats shakes her head, signaling the universal parent guilt trip. She says, “I wish I had been a better listener to my children sometimes. Andrew was 5 years old, and he took my face like this (she puts her hands on her cheeks), and he says, ‘I don’t like it when you go um-hum.’”

Because she is the National Chairwoman from Indiana to the Republican National Committee, Marsha Coats can travel with her husband anytime she likes.

She is happy. She is back in Indiana for the moment house-hunting in Indianapolis and Ft. Wayne. “It’s stimulating, challenging, you feel like you're in on what's happening in the world,” she says. “It’s not a relaxed lifestyle.”

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