Father Coughlin, Forty years

Father Bernard Coughlin.

September 01, 2014

Gonzaga University was broke – in the hole, actually, to the tune of $1 million. Various challenges, including issues with enrollment, constituted a financial disaster in the making. Then, Gonzaga’s 23rd president, Father Bernard Coughlin, S.J., arrived on campus. This was 1974, 40 years ago. The Texan from St. Louis University soon discovered that he’d walked into a mess.

Did he think about packing his bags and leaving Spokane? “Never,” said Fr. Coughlin. “Life gives you messes all the time.” North Idaho businessman Harry Magnuson, one of Gonzaga’s greatest friends, diverted the prospect of immediate calamity by staking his personal wealth behind the University. The bank agreed to give Gonzaga time to right itself; Coughlin found wonderful teachers on campus, but also administrators who’d never been trained in sound business practices. The new president got to work.

“We went from ‘God will provide’ to ‘God will provide, but you still have to make good decisions,’ ” said Chuck Murphy (’73), vice president for finance. Murphy has experienced almost the entire Coughlin era: the 22-year presidency and a chancellorship of 18 years. In this time, Gonzaga’s endowment has grown from $1.6 million to $167 million. Its annual unrestricted revenue rose from $9 million to nearly $170 million.

“If God was calling me to do something, I would be a fool not to do it.”

Fr. Coughlin, 91, grew up in Galveston, Texas; his father worked on the railroad. The four Coughlin boys fielded their own football and baseball teams and largely managed their own affairs. “We weren’t babied by our mother or our father,” Father says.

Coughlin’s decision to enter the Jesuits didn’t come easily. “I talked with my father about it, but only after I had lived with it myself for a while. It was a struggle for me. A lot of people have this struggle. I was 20 when I entered the Jesuits. I went back and forth because I had had several fine girlfriends, and I was interested in getting married. But I had the sense – don’t ask me where it came from – I had the sense enough that if God was calling me to do something, I would be a fool not to do it.”

Every Jesuit makes vows to obedience, poverty and chastity. Fr. Coughlin tells of an experience with obedience about a year before his anticipated ordination. The provincial of the Missouri Province, “a really nice guy,” directed Fr. Coughlin to change his field of study from sociology to social work. At first, Coughlin thought he had heard a slip of the tongue: “No, Father, you mean sociology.” “No, Bernard,” came the response, “I mean social work.”

The change meant another five years of study. He weathered those years well, though, and became dean of the School of Social Work at St. Louis University, where he had “nine or 10 good years, learning years,” before coming to Gonzaga.

Fr. Coughlin focused first on Gonzaga’s Law School, bringing Smithmoore Myers back up from the law faculty to serve his second term as dean. Law School Professor Gary Randall, now retired, recalled: “When Fr. Coughlin became president of the University, the Law School was in chaos. The American Bar Association was close to disaccrediting us. They were unhappy with the amount of (tuition) funds moving from the law school to the general University. So, Fr. Coughlin said, ‘We aren’t going to do this anymore.’ ”

“At first,” Randall went on, “I butted heads with him. But as time went on, I could see that he was right.

“The diversion rate of funds from law school tuition was about 50 percent, and he thought it should be about 20 percent. We agreed upon that.” The law school also trimmed its enrollment from nearly 1,000 students to a manageable size. “Basically, due to his leadership, we still have a law school,” Randall said.

Early in Fr. Coughlin’s years at GU, history Professor Betsy Downey was president of the Faculty Assembly. She speaks of “the three phases of Barney Coughlin”: his early years, learning how to be president; taking full command of the job and being closely in touch with faculty priorities; and finally orienting himself more around the vision of the Board of Trustees. Among Fr. Coughlin’s strengths, said Downey and others, was his respect for diverging views. “You could be honest and upfront with him, with no recriminations,” Downey said. She tells of leaving his office one day, both of them “yelping at each other,” and casting a momentary awkwardness over a waiting room of visitors. “I think all of us who were here at the beginning of his tenure realize that he did wonders, she added. “He sure dug us out of a hole, and he was great at working with the faculty.”

At the School of Business Administration, Coughlin selected Bud Barnes as dean, hoping to stop a series of one-year deans. Longtime Trustee Bob Jepson made his first visit to Gonzaga in that time. Jepson was just 36 – a mere pup compared to the Trustee who had invited him to campus. Jepson fell into conversation with Barnes and came away impressed. After listening to the Trustees and Coughlin discuss building a new engineering school, Jepson interjected, “You have an enterprising new dean who has a lot more business students than you have engineering students. Why aren’t you proposing a new business school?”

“Barney looked across the table at me and said, ‘That’s a great idea. Why don’t you lead the charge?’ ” Jepson recounts. “He never missed a beat.” So began fundraising for construction of the Jepson School of Business Administration. “Barney Coughlin is a very complex and interesting man,” Jepson added. “He is everybody’s ideal for a priest. He carries himself with a godliness that is conspicuous, and you would not expect all the other talents that you find within him. He is a visionary. And a scholar. A brilliant administrator. Much of what the school enjoys today is due to his power of personality, his power of persuasiveness, and his ability to build love in people.”

“The core of Fr. Coughlin’s ministry – as a priest, president and individual – is the pure joy he finds in his relationships with others,” said Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh.

Thousands of stories are told about Barney Coughlin; here’s just one more. Frank Walter played basketball for GU in the late 1940s, scoring more than 1,000 points. By his own admission, Walter was not much of a student. Fr. William Weller, S.J., then dean of the University, flunked Walter in an English class. And Fr. Maurice Flaherty, S.J., dean of the School of Education, kicked him out altogether, saying, according to Walter, “There’s no way I’m going to put a bum like you on the street with a Gonzaga credential.” Walter graduated from Eastern, Washington and went on to a long and happy career teaching English and coaching. Years later, Walter approached Fr. Coughlin about creating an endowed scholarship. The Two Honest Friars Fund still exists today.

“The thing that impressed me most about Fr. Coughlin,” Walter said, “was that he had such a great sense of humor. When I threw this at him, he laughed.” Eventually, Fr. Coughlin presented Walter with a GU diploma.

During his presidency, Coughlin built strong relationships with faculty and the Spokane community – including his stint as the first Jesuit in the nation to lead a Chamber of Commerce. As chancellor, Fr. Coughlin has inspired countless acts of generosity helping young people who couldn’t otherwise attend Gonzaga. He celebrates mass daily, but he also asks God to increase his love and his faith. “It’s no big oratory. God doesn’t need that. He is so close to us, you know.” Father has tended to the weddings, baptisms and funerals of many in the Gonzaga community. He reaches out – emotionally and physically – to the hands and hearts of students, faculty and so many friends of the University. For some, his friendship and love are Gonzaga’s foundation incarnate.
To this day, Fr. Coughlin will tell you that building the University’s perpetual funds – its endowment – is his
highest priority.

“You want to describe one glorious moment?” Fr. Coughlin said. “I guess it would be when we finally balanced the entire budget, and that debt was down to zero. We went from depression up to financial stability.”

Father’s laugh is barely audible. For just a moment, he relives the relief and the joy of that first milestone so many years ago.