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Doctor's Order

His father was then struggling to start a company that manufactured equipment to process optical lenses. He paid his sons a quarter an hour to sort five-gallon buckets of bolts, nuts and washers in the garage. By the time they were in high school, Coburn Optical was the biggest employer in Muskogee, and all the boys and their younger sister had their own cars.

His father was driven and serious. Jim says he was also an alcoholic, not a "mean drunk, but we would see him stumble home and mother would carry him away to the bedroom." From that, his friends and family guess, Coburn developed his enormous self-discipline.


"Look, I got my finger in the dike," says Oklahoma Republican (and physician) Tom Coburn, describing his role in the new Senate. (John Clanton For The Washington Post)

His friends say he likes a good cigar and a drink. But just one cigar, two drinks.

After his junior year at Oklahoma State University, Coburn married the woman his mother says he'd been in love with they were in kindergarten together: Carolyn Denton, Miss Oklahoma 1967. She had accounted for his one bit of true outlaw behavior -- a fistfight at a hot dog stand with another boy who'd asked her out. The wedding took place in the summer of '68, and by the next summer they moved to Virginia, just outside Richmond, so he could help his father get a new business off the ground.

"I was focused on business, kind of driven. I was sort of aloof from the counterculture. I never even heard of marijuana," he says. Coburn proved to be a spectacular businessman. He took over the lens division and grew it in just under a decade from about $100,000 in sales to $40 million to $50 million. When a strike broke out, he quashed it. When a Japanese competitor threatened, he proposed an overhaul that seemed financially reckless to everyone at the time, but that ended up saving the company.

In 1975 Revlon bought the company. Coburn quickly got bored shuttling back and forth to headquarters in New York and dealing with new managers who he says "didn't know what they were talking about."

When he came home from Christmas that year, his mother, who volunteered at a hospital, noticed that a mole on his face had turned gray. Soon afterward a doctor diagnosed it as melanoma and told him he had a 20 percent chance of surviving more than a year.

Coburn left the office and "drove around aimlessly," he writes in his book. He thought about his wife, his three young daughters. He thought: "Why am I here? What am I doing here? If there's a limited amount of time what am I doing with it?"

At 30, when the scare had passed, Coburn left Virginia to get his medical degree at the University of Oklahoma and then returned to Muskogee to open Maternal and Family Practice Associates. Since then, he has been living the life of a country doctor. He and three partners see hundreds of patients, have delivered thousands of babies. Then one day he heard the calling.

In 1994 he read an article in the Muskogee Phoenix quoting Rep. Mike Synar, a Democrat, musing about nationalizing health care. "Somebody's got to run against this guy," he thought. At that point, his daughters had all moved out. One lives in town with her family, another lives with her husband in Los Angeles, his youngest is a singer with the Metropolitan Opera and lives in New York.

"Tommy, no, absolutely no," his wife said, according to his book. She told him he was too "direct and too bullheaded" to be a good politician, that he wouldn't get along in the world of politics.

One night he was at the Pearsons' house for dinner. The women were cleaning up when the men said they were going for a drive. Well into the night the women peered out and saw them sitting in the truck, talking.

"What do you think they're talking about?" Jan Pearson asked Carolyn Coburn.

"He's probably telling Charles he wants to run for Congress."

"Isn't that crazy?" Jan asked


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