Sam Graham

Samuel N. Graham is president and CEO of the wealth management firm Diversified Trust. He is an elder at Independent Presbyterian Church, board chair of Memphis University School and founding board member of Teach for America-Memphis. He is a lifelong Memphian since 1962.

Cofield's legacy: 'One of the good guys' had faith in a better Memphis

By Updated: June 13, 2019 1:02 AM CT | Published: June 12, 2019 3:03 PM CT

<strong>Sam Graham</strong>

Sam Graham

Glenn Cofield was my longtime friend who was loved and respected by many. He and I raised our sons together. We served as officers at church together. We went on family vacations together. He was always the first one who volunteered to coach the boys’ baseball and basketball teams.  He was an Eagle Scout and personified all the good that goes along with that distinction.

He and I debated passionately about stupid things, as well as about important things. But one thing we always shared without any debate – our love and commitment to Memphis and anything that promoted her success and well-being.

Glenn was not always right, but he was never in doubt. This dynamic was most evident when he talked about his beloved alma mater, Ole Miss. Glenn knew Memphis was far from perfect. But he was not a sideline critic. He rolled up his sleeves and got things done while others pontificated. He was deeply involved in organizations committed to helping those less fortunate than he was. He could have easily kept his time and treasury to himself, but he consistently and unselfishly lived his life sharing both with others. 

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Rather than provide a maudlin eulogy of my friend who was taken from us so suddenly and tragically last Friday night, I want to tell you about Glenn’s hope for Memphis and her people. His hopes were deeply rooted in his Christian faith. He was a devoted family man. Glenn’s father and grandfather were well-known photographers in Oxford, Mississippi. In fact, if you have seen photographs of William Faulkner, then perhaps you have seen their work. Glenn’s grandfather, J.R. Cofield, was one of Faulkner’s closest friends and personal photographer. Glenn’s oldest son, Houston, now carries that legacy forward as a photographer, whose career includes contributions to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Bloomberg – just to name a few.

Glenn’s daughter-in-law is a talented, licensed professional counselor who focuses on treating those who suffer with eating disorders. She works with people to help them gain a renewed sense of purpose and empowerment. Glenn just recently helped her open her private practice here in Memphis. She likes to quote a maxim by Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, “to heal, you have to get to the root of the wound and kiss it all the way up.” That really resonates with me. So what is the root of this wound in Memphis that took the life of my dear, gifted friend?

In 1955, in response to the seminal Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, the good friend of Glenn’s grandfather, William Faulkner, wrote a letter to The Commercial Appeal accompanied by his recent essay “American Segregation and the World Crisis.” Faulkner also loved Memphis and his letter exhorted her citizens: “We speak now against the day when our Southern people who will resist to the last these inevitable changes in social relations will, when they have been forced to accept what they at one time might have accepted with dignity and goodwill, will say, “Why didn’t someone tell us this before? Tell us this in time?” Faulkner’s words were written to Memphians 64 years ago. Glenn was one of the good guys who was working with dignity and goodwill to make a better Memphis for all of us.

Glenn and I used to laugh about how we had both married well above our station; outkicked our coverage, so to speak.  Glenn’s wife is a godly, graceful, creative and unselfish lady. Her side of the family has deep roots in Memphis. John T. Fisher was one of her uncles. In 1968, Fisher ran a very successful car dealership. Elvis Presley was among his customers, but he didn't just serve the wealthy. Fisher became one of the few white businessmen to support the sanitation strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis.

On Palm Sunday, April 7, 1968, three days after the assassination of Dr. King, John T. Fisher was one of the organizers of a citywide, biracial service held by religious leaders at Crump Stadium. Six thousand people showed up.

It was called Memphis Cares, and whites and blacks met and prayed together for peace for our city and the nation. When John T. Fisher passed away in 2012, his close friend and confidante of Dr. King, Rev. James Lawson, traveled to Memphis to eulogize him at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. Two great men in the generation before us cast a vision to heal our city of violence and inequities and to promote social justice.

Two months ago, some leaders held Memphis Cares 2 to rekindle the spirit of that 1968 gathering first organized by Glenn’s uncle in-law. This is the work that is vital to that vision becoming a reality in our beloved city.

So you see – Glenn was not a first generation do-gooder. Helping others and promoting peace and prosperity for all ran deeply in his blood. It was not a part-time gig for him. In fact, the very night he was killed, Glenn was leaving an event to raise support for a wonderful nonprofit organization that serves children in great need. Just an hour before he died, Glenn had befriended the cook at this party. He was always making new friends. A mutual friend overheard Glenn thanking this cook for the good food he had made. Glenn asked how his culinary business was doing. The cook said it had been a bit challenging lately and that MLGW was going to turn off his power on Monday. In true Glenn fashion, he went to some friends at the party and gathered enough cash to ensure this man’s power would stay on. Who does that? Most of us would just shrug and say: “Well, good luck with that.” But not my friend Glenn.

And this was not an isolated event. Stories are beginning to surface about Glenn’s random acts of kindness which he did on a regular basis, and it would be rare if you ever heard about them.

People ask me if I am angry. Of course I am. What a waste of the life of a great person who was doing so much good for our city. But I don’t hate the person who pulled the trigger that killed my friend. To be honest, I could not have said that in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning. But Glenn knew, and I know, that hate destroys the hater more than the object of hate. It doesn’t do anyone any good, and it certainly isn’t going to bring back my friend. Our Christian faith teaches that evil cannot overcome evil. Only righteousness and good can overcome evil.

Just like those wonderful people of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, whose fellow church members were gunned down by a deranged lunatic, I want to be able to forgive. As counter-intuitive and unnatural as this sounds, I’d like to reach out one day and meet the person who took my friend’s life. I am sure he has a difficult personal story which is about to get even more difficult. Had Glenn lived, I think he would have felt the same way. Glenn believed all people are created in the image of God and have value.   

It would be so easy, yet so wrong, to say, good lord, this is the last straw. I’m out. Done. Packing my bags. This has gone too far and for too long. But isolation and insulation are NOT the answer. They are fool’s gold. This didn’t happen in a vacuum. This tragedy is not unique to Memphis. You can run to the country if you think that will make you safer, and it probably would for a while.

But the root of the issue is so much deeper than a robbery gone wrong last Friday night. We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of darkness and evil. This is not time to tuck tail and run. It is time to stand up for our city and help realize her great potential.

I can’t explain why, but I needed to go to the scene of the crime the day after. I had to see where my friend had died. I was hoping to have a moment of silent prayer and to give thanks for the gift of friendship I had enjoyed with such a wonderful person. Upon arrival I was surprised to find a team of Memphis Police detectives in the parking lot investigating every inch of the scene. At that moment, it all hit home with greater intensity that Glenn was really gone and never coming back.

A fellow elder of our church who also loved Glenn spoke with the pastor of the Greater Lewis Street Missionary Baptist Church, whose parking lot was the scene of this tragedy. The pastor shared how he and his congregation are also hurting over all of this. They are strong people of faith who also seek to promote the shalom of the city. He asked that his congregation’s love and condolences be communicated to the Cofield family. That is the Memphis I believe we really are, with genuine love and care for one another. That is the force that must win; not the crippling, divisive, us-and-them idiocy that always grabs the headlines.

This Sunday is Father’s Day. I am mindful that Glenn’s three sons will not be able to say “Happy Father’s Day” to their dad. That hurts. His youngest just graduated from high school and is heading to Ole Miss, where Glenn went to college. His middle son just moved back to Memphis this week and was on his way home with his car loaded when he received the tragic news about his father.

Glenn’s death must not have been in vain. Let’s not chalk up this tragedy as yet another senseless crime. Let’s get to the root of our beloved city’s deep wound and kiss it all the way up. Love conquers hate. Light conquers darkness. Friends of the Cofield family will not let our love for Glenn and his legacy be twisted into hate for the city where he lived and raised his family and grew a successful business.

Glenn would be passionate about pressing forward with a faith-based mission to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. And to seek the shalom of Memphis. In these mandates, Glenn would have no doubt, and he would also be 100% right.  

Early this morning (Wednesday), about 35 of Glenn’s closest friends got together with his three sons to pray and to share some “Glenn stories.” It started out very somber, and then someone broke the ice with a story about Glenn’s imperfections, which we all knew and loved. He was a real guy like the rest of us. He lived a robust and colorful life. Our time ended with belly-aching laughter about a man who set a standard of lifetime service for others which will be hard to match.   

A good friend called me to ask if I would write this guest column. Several years ago, this same friend told me, “Memphis is small enough where you can really make a difference, and big enough that the whole world will take notice.”

Say what you will about Memphis, but she oozes soulful authenticity. And the world knows it. What an opportunity we have to turn this and other similar tragedies into the Memphis Miracle. Wouldn’t it be miraculous if Memphis became known as a city of outrageous generosity and love for each other? What if we actually went out of our way to love each other well – particularly those who have lost hope.

People across our nation say it simply cannot be done here or anywhere else, but what if we in Memphis actually did it? There are people of dignity and goodwill in every neighborhood in our city. No exceptions. Very few other cities have the amazing, world-renowned advantages our city has.  My friend and high school classmate Hampton Sides wrote an article for Garden & Gun a few years ago about Memphis. He said it so well: “The thing about Memphis is that it’s pleasingly off-kilter. It’s a great big whack job of a city. The anti-Atlanta. You go there and you can’t believe the things people will say, the way they think, the wobbling orbits of their lives. There’s an essential otherness. ... It’s like a factory for original souls. And those it does not produce, it pulls into its voracious tractor beam. It’s a city of dreams and dreamers, many of them failed ones, but not always. You can’t define it or bottle it. You can’t explain or parse it. You just have to go there and get a whiff for yourself.”

In the spirit of Glenn Cofield, I say it is time we quit our bitching, roll up our sleeves and love each other across the historical lines which have divided us. Rich and poor. Black and white. Downtown and Germantown. East Memphis and Orange Mound. Big-steeple red-brick churches and dilapidated worship shacks. All sides of all of these combinations are beautiful representations of what makes Memphis mystically marvelous. They represent the soul of our city that people around the world marvel about.

Glenn loved our city, and so do I.  Don’t you? Then do something on a personal level to get to know someone outside your normal tribe. Outside your comfort zone. Help someone who is down on their luck. I am still striving to live up to the level of my friend Glenn, but if your experience turns out like mine so far, you will ask yourself, “What took me so long?”


Glenn Cofield Crimestoppers Downtown

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