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Russell C. Coile '38, SM '39, EE '50

“Disasterman” always stood ready for war and earthquakes
February 22, 2011

When Russell Coile was six years old, he made a pretend generator out of a broken wattmeter his dad brought home from his job overseeing the telephone exchange at the army post in Panama. When Coile graduated from high school, in Hawaii, he was ready for MIT but was still a year short of the Institute’s minimum age—17. So he spent a year at the University of Maryland, then a hotbed of lacrosse, which came in handy when he went out for varsity lacrosse at MIT the following year. “My [MIT]letter holds a place of honor in my den,” he says.

As he earned three degrees at the Institute, he continued to pursue that and other sports—including racing in 12-foot dinghies off the new MIT Sailing Pavilion, the first collegiate sailing facility in the nation. “We fought desperately to beat the professors in the other boats,” he recalls. In winter, he ran outdoors on a half-mile wooden track, even when he had to brush snow off the boards. He studied electrical engineering and served in the ROTC signal corps. In his last year, he was a research assistant to MIT’s vice president, Vannevar Bush, EGD ‘16, who helped him land a job measuring the strength of Earth’s magnetic field in South America.

When World War II began, he took the last boat out of Peru, steaming along without lights to avoid U-boat attacks. Ultimately, his active-duty work on a bombardiers’ training device at the Pentagon kept him stateside. After the war, he joined the Operations Evaluation Group (OEG), which his MIT physics professor Philip Morse had led through the war. Coile’s job: helping military units prepare for disasters. He also completed the senior officers’ course at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island; studied at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama; and earned a PhD in information science from the City University, London.

After 29 years at OEG, he retired from the air force as a colonel. With their three grown children out on their own, Coile and his wife, Ellen, moved to Pacific Grove, California, where Coile applied his disaster readiness skills for almost 20 years. “California is not just Disneyland,” he says. “It’s earthquake land. California has more earthquakes and more floods than any other state.” He organized community emergency response teams and published and presented more than 200 papers.

Russell and Ellen Coile have been married for 59 years. One of their grandchildren, Courtney Coile, PhD ‘99, teaches economics at Wellesley College. Coile, who recently retired at 91, published his memoir, Disasterman, in 2009. 

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