James Lynn Coffman, the owner of Coffman's Snack Bar, which has been a gathering place for Middle River residents and politicians for more than half a century, died from lung cancer Dec. 15 in his apartment above the Orems Road restaurant.

He was 76.

Mr. Coffman, the son of a body shop mechanic and a dressmaker, was born in Fairmont, W.Va., and spent his early years there.

With the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Coffman moved to Middle River with his family when his father went to work at the old Glenn L. Martin Co. plant building warplanes.

Mr. Coffman was a 1951 graduate of Kenwood High School and served in the Navy as a sonarman aboard the destroyer USS Purdy from 1953 to 1957.

"After the war, with work scarce, no one wanted to return to West Virginia, so my grandfather started to dabble in the food business," said Mr. Coffman's son, William H. Coffman of Joppa, who took over management of the restaurant about 15 years ago when his father retired.

The elder Mr. Coffman first converted a trailer into a mobile lunch wagon from which he sold hot dogs and then expanded his culinary horizons after purchasing an old Baltimore Transit Co. bus, which he outfitted as a small diner with a kitchen and chairs.

"On one side of Coffman's Snack Bus were seats, and the other side was the stove and other kitchen equipment," William Coffman said.

In 1953, he built the present building.

"The idea caught on, and my family has been selling hot dogs and hamburgers at the Middle River and Orems road[s] location ever since," he said.

"My father married my mother, the former Sharon Sindelar, in 1953, and they lived in New England while he was in the Navy. After his discharge, they returned to Middle River and joined my grandfather in the family business, which was then and continues to be Coffman's Snack Bar," his son said.

Mr. Coffman said that even though his father was retired, he lived in an apartment over the restaurant and came in every day to greet and chat with customers.

"He was our ambassador and host. He'd sit at his favorite table discussing politics and community issues and life in general," his son said.

The restaurant, which serves breakfast and lunch, is known for the chili sauce that accompanies its hot dogs.

"My grandmother invented it. The ingredients she combined included hamburger, chili powder, bread crumbs and tomato paste for her chili sauce, and we still make her recipe," William Coffman said.

Thomas J. Rostkowski has been a friend and customer of Mr. Coffman's for 30 years.

"I've been going there on a daily basis now for seven years, ever since my wife died. Jim's specialties were hot dogs, burgers and his homemade soups, but the place basically is a hot dog joint," Mr. Rostkowski said.

"It was also a watering hole for all the politicians and those aspiring to be politicians," he said.

Mr. Coffman was a longtime member of the Jaycees, Optimist Club of Middle River and the Masons. He was a member of the Boumi Temple, Scottish Rite and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon.

"He was a very concerned community activist," said Tom Toporovich, former secretary to the Baltimore County Council and a Dundalk community leader.

"He was very active with the Jaycees, which was real big in those days. I remember when he collected signatures to fight Gov. [J. Millard] Tawes' proposed tax increase in 1964," he said.

Mr. Coffman had a private pilot's license and rebuilt a 1950s-era single-engine Aeronca Champ in a storage warehouse behind his restaurant.

"He sort of turned it into an airplane hangar," his son said.

A lifelong fan of big-band music, Mr. Coffman, who played the clarinet and saxophone, formed and managed the Ain't Misbehavin band in the 1990s.

"Even though he lost some of his wind and could no longer play with them, he still conducted and directed the group until recently," his son said.

He also enjoyed boating.

Mr. Coffman's wife died in 1981.

Services were held Thursday.

Also surviving are a daughter, Martha Susan Hellekson of Baltimore Highlands; and four grandchildren.

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