Eulogy for Rev. Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J. (2/21/20)

February 21, 2020

Below is the eulogy delivered by Dr. Thayne McCulloh at the funeral services for Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J. on Friday, February 21, 2020.

Eulogy for Reverend Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J.
For Barney +

On behalf of Gonzaga University, I want to add a special welcome to the family of Father Coughlin.  We want to offer our condolences to you and thank you for traveling so far to be with us this week. 

As the end of our liturgy draws near, we recognize that we’ve come together today to mourn the passing of a brother and an uncle; a friend, a corporal and spiritual guide, a leader, a mentor – and to express gratitude for the life of Father Bernard J. Coughlin of the Society of Jesus, and the gift his life has been to us, and to so many people across time.

There are many things for which I will always be grateful when it comes to Father Coughlin.  In my way of thinking, he was principal architect of the Gonzaga University we know today.  After working to pull the institution back from the brink of financial catastrophe, he set about creating a direction for the institution that – over the long course of years – would improve its academic reputation, the preparedness of its students, the quality of the campus environment, and the connectedness of the university to the local community.  In so doing, he set a trajectory that, if successful, would improve the overall profile of Gonzaga in the region and the eyes of the higher education community.  All along the way, he put people – particularly students and their needs -- at the center of the institution. 

I came to Gonzaga University as a student, after having served a three-year stint in the US Army.  Because my parents lived in Dallas at the time, and theirs was the only permanent address I had, my admission application listed me as being from Texas.  Already feeling a bit awkward and out of place at new student orientation, on Welcome Night wouldn’t you know the university president in the beginning of his remarks would call on the single student from the State of Texas to stand up and be recognized?  I didn’t understand at the time that he wasn’t picking on me; having been born in Galveston, he was just so excited to finally have a fellow Texan in the community!  The next week, he wrote me a note, inviting me to lunch. Thus, my relationship with Fr. Coughlin was foundational to my relationship with Gonzaga.

In the months and years after I was appointed president, Fr. Coughlin was a frequent collaborator and conversation partner for me.  To be honest, I sometimes received his appearance at my door with a mixture of anticipation and dread – anticipation because he always had some significant piece of information that he wanted to share; dread because his custom of gently clapping my cheek with his hand was in no way gentle; my neck muscles would involuntarily seize up in anticipation of its force.  And if I complained he would just chuckle and say “Ah, Thayne” as he walked out of the office.

As I reflected upon my experience, revisited old conversations and listened to the stories others have shared with me, there are four things that emerge for me as lessons from Barney Coughlin’s life.

  • It’s all about relationships. Once Barney decided upon a goal or settled on a direction, achieving that objective became his passion.  Whether it had to do with his scholarly writing, developing policy, or fundraising for a new facility, he recognized that to a large degree, whether something succeeded or failed owed itself to whether one got distracted along the way.  The importance of being and remaining focused extended into his personal relationships as well.  He genuinely treasured his relationships with people and he understood that maintaining relationships itself requires effort.  He always said that he had the good fortune to have two wonderful, loving parents; family was incredibly important to him, and he took immense pride in his nephews and nieces.  When he became Chancellor – given that he was the first Chancellor ever – it was unclear to many what his role would be.  But not to Barney.  He immediately understood that the lifeblood of the university was its people, and his job was going to be about maintaining and deepening relationships.  Do you remember the power of his touch?  How he would grab onto people by the hand and maintain that physical connection?  He loved people and he put people, his relationships, not at the periphery but at the center of his life, his formation, his work. For him, it was all about relationships.
  • Keep moving. In his later years, Fr. Coughlin could frequently be seen out walking around the campus and even farther afield. About 9 years ago he and I were on a benefactor trip to San Francisco, he went on a walk but didn’t return at the agreed-upon time.  After 45 minutes or so, I started to ruminate on what “losing Fr. Coughlin in San Francisco” might mean for my tenure.  When he finally returned, he laughed at my concern. “Oh Thayne,” he said, “I don’t get lost.”  Although there might have been a fitness-related component to his long walks, in the main it evinced a trait that was established in him many years before.  Barney was restless.  He hated sitting in meetings.  He wanted to move; he had to move.  He loved to experience life, to explore new places and possibilities, to take note of changes and evolutions in the environment and world around him.  Over the course of many years he traveled extensively. To be in motion became a mode of living, and a way of being in the world.  It facilitated active engagement, constant discovery – and the chance encounter.  It was also, in his view, the a way of responding to crisis, finding a way out of the briar patch, the surest way of responding to grief.  “They’re depending on us,” he would say: “we gotta keep moving.”
  • Find the good (joy). Like all who are deeply invested in the welfare of their institution or by necessity become drawn into the crises of the moment, Barney carried his share of burdens and worries.  But amidst the challenges of work and life, he discerned that part of God’s call to him, and his vocation, involved bringing hope to people.  On an individual level, he consoled the grieving; on an institutional level, he insisted on celebrating success and the generosity of wonderful people; on a community level, he challenged Spokane and our region to be more courageous, to be forthright in addressing injustice, to recognize the richness of this community as well as its shortcomings.  While carefully walking the line between being optimistic and appearing dismissive, even in the midst of crisis Barney would ultimately find a way to place things in a broader perspective, a perspective that inevitably led him to the goodness of God, and the goodness in people.  “Let’s not forget,” he would say, “to remember the good things that have happened too.”
  • God bless you, God love you. Father Coughlin consistently signed off – whether in his written notes, his phone calls, or his in-person conversations, with a heartfelt, “God bless you, God love you.”  What was striking about this for me is that it contained two core messages.  First, he had an unshakeable belief not only in the existence of God, but in the Christian message at the heart of the Gospel – that God loves us, each and every one of us, just as we are.  He was not only supremely confident in this belief, he was serenely  It was just . . . fact.  This unwavering confidence in God’s love was a force that vibrated strongly within him.  It was the source of his strength in good times, in times of grief, in times of stress.  His faith was his superpower.  But another core message was what he was saying about you, when he said, “God bless you.  God love you.”  He was saying, you matter.  Your life has meaning.  You are worthwhile.  You matter to God, and you matter to me, also.  When Barney said “God love you” he also meant, “I love you.”

So today, we gather to say: farewell, for now.  To us, through the example of his life, Barney Coughlin says: it’s all about relationships / keep moving / find the good / and remember: God loves you.  

And to you, Fr. Coughlin, we say: Rest now, brother, uncle, friend, minister, mentor -- your work here is ended, but the gift that is your legacy lives on.  Thank you, We love you, God bless you.

Related Messages & Media
Thoughts & Prayers – Passing of Rev. Bernard J. Coughlin S.J.
Service Information – Reverend Bernard J. Coughlin S.J.