Remembering Cynthia Coolbaugh

Barbara Benham ('70) shares her memories of Cynthia Coolbaugh ('70)

SUMMARY: Cynthia Coolbaugh (’70) was an active fighter for peace throughout her life. With the help of Barbara Benham (’70), we reflect back on her passions and progressive work that ultimately led to a Nobel Peace Prize.

By Brittany Bell (’21)

At Madison College, Cindy Coolbaugh (’70) was involved in many student organizations. She was a member of Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority and the Honors Council, and was vice president of the Student Government Association her senior year. Originally a home economics major, Coolbaugh was known for her cooking skills. Even after switching to psychology, Coolbaugh continued to cook for anyone and everyone.

“My memories of her are mostly just happy memories of dorm life, her cooking for us, and then as we got to be grown-ups, still cooking for us when we would get together for mini-reunions,” said Barbara Benham (’70), Coolbaugh’s friend and former roommate.

Coolbaugh (right) served on the legislative branch of the Student Government Association in 1968.

Beyond her involvement with school organizations and her passion for cooking, Coolbaugh was also known for her fighting spirit. The Class of 1970 was witness to the Vietnam War, and Coolbaugh, like many college students at that time, protested the war. Having grown up in a military family, her stance shocked her friends and loved ones—even more so when she took it to the next level.

Toward the end of her senior year, Coolbaugh took part in a demonstration in which she and a group of students chained themselves to chairs in Wilson Hall. According to Benham, state troopers had to take the protestors away, and Coolbaugh wasn’t allowed to walk at graduation. Despite the severity of the situation, her friends and classmates couldn’t help but be impressed with her commitment to fight for what she believed in.

Cindy1.jpg“She was sort of in-your-face about it,” Benham said. “In some ways, as her friend, I really admired that. I didn’t have the guts, the hutzpah, to do that sort of thing, even though I, along with our other friends, agreed with her. But she put herself out there. And then down the line as an adult, she parlayed that into a real big peace initiative.”

Coolbaugh spent 15 years with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Originally created by the United Nations, the organization works to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and encourages peaceful applications of nuclear science to fight poverty and disease. As an events coordinator, Coolbaugh set up international conferences and gatherings for IAEA.

Despite her title, Coolbaugh admitted to Benham there were times when she would climb inside missile siloes in Iran to check for compliance with nuclear treaties. “This idea of her just being the hostess for this group ... I think it was more of a cover for some other, very intensive work,” Benham said.

Cindys_Award.jpgIn December 2005, Coolbaugh’s team, led by Mohamed ElBaradei, won a Nobel Peace Prize. Her award is on display in Wilson Hall. It was donated by her son, David Doane (’97), and family as a way to honor her love for the school and her achievements in atomic energy.

Coolbaugh, who died in August 2017, lived her life in pursuit of peace. She believed in fighting for what’s right and doing whatever possible to make it known.

Benham said if Coolbaugh could give advice to young people today, she would say, “Learn how to cook a simple meal for yourself,” but then, “I think she’d tell the kids, more in a philosophical way, don’t be afraid to do the right thing.”


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Published: Friday, April 30, 2021

Last Updated: Thursday, April 25, 2024

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