Tribute to 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), student writing assistant, Office of Alumni Relations 

Cindy_Coolbough_Pic.jpgWhen Cynthia “Cindy” Coolbaugh (’70) went to Madison College, she was involved in many student organizations. She was a member of the Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority, joined the honors council, and was even the Vice President for the Student Government Association her senior year. Originally a home economics major, Coolbaugh was known for her cooking skills by all of her friends. 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 grownups, still cooking for us when we would get together for mini reunions,” Barbara Benham (’70), Coolbaugh’s friend and former roommate, said.

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

Toward the end of their senior year, Coolbaugh took part in a demonstration where she and a group of students chained themselves to chairs in Wilson Hall to protest the war. 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 feel 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 “hudza,” 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 a grownup person, she parlayed that into a real big peace initiative.”

During her adult life, Coolbaugh spent 15 years working for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 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 that use it to fight poverty and disease. As the Section Head of Conference Services, Coolbaugh set up international conferences and gatherings, acting as an events coordinator.

Despite her title suggesting a staff role, Benham admits that Coolbaugh would tell them of times where she herself would climb inside missile siloes and check for compliance in Iran. “This idea of her just being the hostess for this group… even though she was doing that, I think it was more of a cover for some other very intensive work.”

In December of 2005, Coolbaugh’s team, led by Mohamed ElBaradei, went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize for their work in maintaining peace through facilitating beneficial ways to use atomic energy. As a member of the staff, Coolbaugh shared the award with her teammates, receiving a portion of the prize.

From actively protesting the war to working in a profession that maintains positive uses of atomic energy, Coolbaugh lived a life fighting for peace. She believed in fighting for what’s right and doing whatever possible to make it known.

Cindys_Award.jpgHer accomplishments can be recognized in Wilson Hall, where her Nobel Prize is displayed for all to see. The prize was donated to the school by her son, David Doane (’97), and family as a way to honor her love of the school and achievements in atomic energy for the world.

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

We would like thank Cindy Coolbaugh for all of her accomplishments and Barbara Benham for helping us honor her memory.

Back to Top

Published: Friday, April 30, 2021

Last Updated: Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Related Articles