Benjamin L. Coale, a teacher and an artist who had an unbound enthusiasm for teaching, dies

Benjamin L. Coale, a teacher and artist who brought his lifelong love of history and English to his classroom and an understated sense of humor to his artwork, died of esophageal cancer Jan. 11 at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The former Mount Vernon resident who lived in Glacier View, Alaska, was 39.

Tristan Davies, former senior lecturer in the writing seminar at the Johns Hopkins University, had been Mr. Coale’s teacher in two graduate seminars as well as his thesis adviser.


“I was very impressed with Ben. He was a very gentle guy and a very thoughtful, nice person, and it served him well as a teacher,” Mr. Davies said. “He was just a Baltimore guy, friendly, unassuming, without pretense and really very smart. And as a writer, he worked very hard and got better.”

Benjamin Latrobe Coale, son of Joseph Merryman Coale III, a writer, historian and former aide to Gov. Harry R. Hughes, and his wife, Mary McKim Macdonald Coale, an interior designer, was born in Baltimore and raised in Roland Park and Ruxton.


He was the great-great-great-grandson of architect Benjamin H. Latrobe, a designer of the United States Capitol and the Baltimore Basilica, among other notable historic structures.

After graduating in 2001 from St. Paul’s School for Boys in Brooklandville, Mr. Coale earned a bachelor’s degree in 2005 in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia.

In 2008, he obtained a master’s degree in English and creative writing from the Johns Hopkins University, and in 2011, an ACT teaching certificate in secondary education from Notre Dame of Maryland University.

While completing his master’s degree and earning a teaching certificate, Mr. Coale lived in Mount Vernon and worked at Mick O’Shea’s Irish Pub on North Charles Street as a server-bartender.

From 2007 to 2008, he was a substitute teacher at Ruxton Country School where he taught English, history, study skills and science. He was also a middle school and high school English intern for Baltimore City Public Schools in 2011.

In 2018, he and his wife, the former Michelle Saltmarsh, whom he met at college and married in 2011, moved to Glacier View when he accepted a teaching position at Glacier View School in Sutton, Alaska.

“I got it, because Ben had a very adventuresome streak and I wouldn’t have been surprised if I got a call from him asking for a recommendation for a job in Sumatra,” Mr. Davies said. “Alaska was an adventure that he wouldn’t shy away from, and he was rough and ready for it. He lived life to the fullest.”

Wendy J. Taylor is principal of Glacier View School, where Mr. Coale taught middle and high school English and history.


“Ben found his passion for teaching here in Alaska and we’re going to miss his passion for life and learning,” Ms. Taylor said in a telephone interview.

“His confidence built in teaching and in doing so built confidence in our kids. He grew as much as he allowed our kids to grow. He was big on relationships and humor and the laughter that came out of his room. He believed relationships were the first step in educating a child. He wanted them to feel confident and successful in whatever they wanted to do.”

He knew how to “catch their attention,” Ms. Taylor said.

“He challenged them to get out and look at the world. He loved Alaska and didn’t take anything for granted,” she said. “He encouraged our kids to appreciate nature and what Alaska had to offer.”

It wasn’t uncommon for Mr. Coale to assemble his students outside to take in a beautiful sunrise, and when it came time to study state government, he took his students on a four-day trip to Juneau, the state capital, where they met legislators and attended lectures.

“He was hands on,” Ms. Taylor said.


Mr. Coale excelled at connecting with his students.

“He was a kid himself and he could get their attention by going to their level and finding out what they were interested in and then he’d try it,” Ms. Taylor said.

In addition to his daily teaching regimen, Mr. Coale conducted after school classes including guitar lessons.

“You could see that Ben knew how to run a classroom, had humility when it came to listening to students, and all done with a great sense of humor,” Mr. Davies said. “He had a very dry and wry sense of humor.”

Mr. Coale was also an accomplished artist who worked in oils and acrylics, and like filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, liked turning normal into the abnormal. In one of his paintings, he featured marshmallows and hot dogs with faces, standing around a campfire under a starry nighttime sky toasting a miniature figure of a human being attached to a stick.

“He liked turning the tables on reality,” his father said. “And he never took one art course. He was self-taught.”


“His art had a certain sense of whimsy to it,” said his wife of 10 years, a personal trainer. “They were very intense, pessimistic, whimsical, kooky and funny. He had a wide range of subjects and they were nutty and reminded me of the ‘Far Side’ cartoons.”

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Ms. Coale added: “They were vibrant and the colors that came from his palate were vibrant and came alive on canvas.”

Mr. Coale’s father remembered his son’s many passions and talents.

“Ben had a curiosity and creativity that explored life in many directions, contributing to his happiness and others. Some of these paths led to his personal success and in making a difference for others,” his father wrote in an email.

“Through his music, art, photography, education archaeology, travel and passion for teaching he was an uplifting spark that gained respect from colleagues and gave inspiration to his students,” he wrote. “His hope was to inspire a younger group of young people, although geographically isolated, to make the most of their dreams and potential.”


Plans for a celebration-of-life gathering to be held in May at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore are incomplete.

In addition to his wife and parents, Mr. Coale is survived by a brother, Robert Bowen Coale, of Ruxton; and two nephews.