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Minnesota's first medical examiner was a big man whose reputation for examining death was larger than life.

Former Hennepin County medical examiner Dr. John Ira Coe once wrestled football legend Leo Nomellini. He switched his studies to medicine during World War II so he could serve in the Army Medical Corps. He was part of a congressional select committee that answered forensic questions about the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Respected internationally as a teacher and mentor of several generations of forensic pathologists, Coe died on March 26 at his Bloomington home. He was 92.

"He was not someone who bragged, or someone who liked to show off his knowledge," said Dr. Garry Peterson, a more recently retired Hennepin County medical examiner. "His willingness to say that a question couldn't be answered was just as important as the hundreds of thousands of very solid answers he gave."

A former Carleton College football player who collected art and dabbled in watercolor painting, Coe was born in 1919, in Woodstock, Ill. His father died early and Coe was raised by his mother.

Ethel Coe, an educator, provided her son with life lessons that created a blueprint for a remarkable medical career that included work in pathology at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, as the chief of pathology at Minneapolis General Hospital (now Hennepin County Medical Center) and as a professor of the University of Minnesota Medical School.

But Coe is best remembered as Hennepin County's medical examiner from 1964 to 1984.

His journey was as unexpected as the position that was created to suit his considerable talents.

After receiving his undergraduate degree from Carleton in 1941, Coe began studying biochemistry at the University of Minnesota. Then World War II erupted. When he learned of an anticipated shortage of physicians, Coe switched his studies to medicine.

In 1960, Coe became the first board-certified forensic pathologist in the Midwest.

Dr. Andrew Baker, Hennepin County's current medical examiner, has said that Coe's greatest claim to fame was his usage of chemical markers -- from eye fluid -- to diagnose diabetes, dehydration and kidney failure. Peterson said Coe was revered internationally for his studies of how the body's chemistry changes after death.

A marvelous storyteller, world traveler and church leader, Coe began writing poetry at 80. The classroom in the Hennepin County medical examiner's office was dedicated to Coe two years ago, at his 90th birthday party.

"He was head and shoulders -- literally and physically -- above the rest," Peterson said. "You couldn't have known a nicer man."

Coe was preceded in death by his wife of 55 years, Myrtle Hodgkins Coe. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. April 16 at Friendship Village, 8100 Highwood Drive, Bloomington.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419