Longtime Sen. Hank Coe dies at 74

Posted 1/26/21

Hank Coe, who long represented Park County in the Wyoming Legislature, died Thursday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

The 74-year-old was “a terrifically great man from Cody, …

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Longtime Sen. Hank Coe dies at 74


Hank Coe, who long represented Park County in the Wyoming Legislature, died Thursday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

The 74-year-old was “a terrifically great man from Cody, Wyoming,” Gov. Mark Gordon said last week.

Coe dedicated the majority of his life to public service. He assisted various organizations, like the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, while spending eight years as a Park County commissioner, 23 years as a volunteer firefighter and 32 in the state Senate, serving from January 1989 through earlier this month. When Coe announced his retirement from the Legislature last year, the senator said he was “eternally grateful to the people of Park County who put their faith in me to represent them for so many years.”

Across his decades in politics and in leadership positions, Coe had an outsized impact on the state as he worked to improve Wyoming’s education system and commercial air service, among other efforts.

From the halls of Congress to state industry groups to his former colleagues, condolences and remembrances poured in as word of Coe’s death spread across the state last week.

The Senate agriculture committee was holding a virtual meeting Thursday afternoon when member Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, cut in to announce with “great sadness … that the great Sen. Hank Coe has passed.”

The committee members, including Powell Republicans Tim French and R.J. Kost, bowed their heads in silent prayer for Coe and his family.

Speaking to Wyoming Public Radio on Thursday, Coe’s longtime legislative colleague and friend, former state Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, called his death “quite a loss.”

“He loved Wyoming, he worked hard for his constituency, he worked hard for the state, just a great American,” Bebout told WPR, adding that Coe “was what everybody should try to be in terms of public service.”

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said Coe’s presence will be deeply missed.

“Hank Coe was a friend and a role model to all who met him,” Cheney said in a Friday statement. “He lived an exceptional life and leaves behind a remarkable legacy of selfless leadership and service on behalf of the people of Park County, and our entire state.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow also issued a statement, calling Coe a friend, mentor and colleague. She described him as “always generous, always kind.” Balow specifically noted Hank’s work leading the Senate’s Education Committee, saying he did so “with a keen sense of the business that would keep Wyoming schools moving in the right direction.”

His work included helping develop the Hathaway Scholarship program, which has helped thousands of Wyoming students attend in-state colleges. 

“I’ve had some other successes and some other things that stick out, but nothing quite like Hathaway,” Coe said last year.

Those who spoke at a Park County Commission-hosted event on Jan. 19 also praised Coe’s work on behalf of his constituents.

“He called me regularly when it was issues related to the park [Yellowstone], but it can be from the park to a pothole; Hank had all the numbers to call,” said U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a former colleague of Coe’s in the Legislature.

Of course, not all of his actions were welcomed by constituents. 

In his last two terms, Coe faced stiff opposition and criticism from the Big Horn Basin Tea Party, the Wyoming Gun Owners group and more conservative members of the Republican Party — particularly after he led an unsuccessful effort to strip then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill of most of her powers in 2013. But Coe prevailed over two challenges to win his seventh and eighth terms.

State Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, described Coe as both a pillar of the Wyoming Senate and a good man.

“I remember when I asked him for advice as a new legislator and he replied, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Just vote the way I do and you’ll be fine,’” Boner said. “I will miss his sense of humor, kind heartedness and dedication to our great state.”

Boner was chairing Thursday’s Senate agriculture meeting when the news broke of Coe’s death. Visibly emotional, the senator led the committee in a silent prayer and then took a break, before resuming the hearing.

“I think Sen. Coe would have liked for us to continue with the people’s business,” he said. “May God be with him and his family.”

A public visitation will be held from 5-7 p.m. Friday at Ballard Funeral Home in Cody. Then at 11:15 a.m. Saturday, the community is invited to gather at Cody’s Christ Episcopal Church for a procession to Riverside Cemetery, where Coe will be laid to rest.