Father Coughlin: it's All About Love

father coughlin
Fr. Bernard Coughlin, S.J.

September 01, 2017
Dale Goodwin (’86)

In January, Fr. Coughlin stepped down as the University’s only chancellor, a position he had held for 20 years following his 22-year run as president. In April, the 94-year-old moved to Los Gatos, Calif., and the Western U.S. Jesuits’ retirement center.

The year was 1974 and Spokane was hosting a world’s fair less than a mile from campus. Back along Boone Street, Gonzaga was in search of a new president during very difficult times.

Then chair of the Board of Trustees, Harry Magnuson, along with University President Father Richard Twohy, S.J., invited the dean of social welfare at St. Louis University, Father Bernard (burrnurd) J. Coughlin, S.J., to campus and offered him the 23rd presidency of the University.

It wasn’t until Fr. Coughlin had moved his meager belongings to Spokane that Harry dropped the bomb: “By the way, Father, we’re broke.”

Fr. Coughlin knew that the only way to dig out of debt was to meet, build relationships with, and engage business and civic leaders in promoting a vision and mission for a strong, morals based university. With their business acumen and resources, they helped right the ship. One only needs to stroll across campus to see the names of Fr. Coughlin’s many friends on our buildings, rooms and scholarships – Kennedy, Tilford, Jundt, Jepson, Burch, Herak, Magnuson, Foley, Cowles, Rosauer, McCarthey, Clute, West, Hemmingson, and soon-to-be Woldson – just to name a few.

“I was fortunate to establish wonderful relationships. I believed then, and still do, that the president’s job was to engage people who had thoughtfulness and generosity and wanted to see the University succeed, and in time, Gonzaga became very much a part of this community,” Fr. Coughlin recently shared.

This man of great stature and abiding care for people had both bark and brawn in higher education leadership circles. But at home on campus, cura personalis, care for the whole individual, exemplified everything good about the man who saved Gonzaga University, preserved Gonzaga’s Jesuit heritage and constantly shared his love with colleagues, students, friends, alumni and associates.

Fr. Coughlin is the longest-serving president in University history. “I guess I felt so involved that I never realized that I had been at Gonzaga for 42 years. That’s almost half of my life,” he says, a slight smile creeping over his face, which is etched by both trials and great accomplishments.

It is near impossible for people to visit with Fr. Coughlin and not leave with a smile in their heart and on their face. His graciousness, and joy for life and the Lord, is downright contagious.

Before he left campus last spring, it was common to see him stopping to strike up a conversation with a student, staff or faculty member on his daily walk. “I always appreciated the students coming up and introducing themselves and establishing those associations with me,” he says. “It’s good for the students to feel at home, and I enjoyed seeing their smiling faces.”

Students are one primary cog that makes Gonzaga such a fine place, Fr. Coughlin says. “I’m not trying to put any gold on my shoulders for making it a fine place, but our students want to be good scholars and succeed in life (not just in the job market); their values and the quality of what they are doing, the families that they’re raising, the things they are teaching, are in keeping with Gonzaga’s values as a Jesuit university. To me, that’s the most important thing.” While he says a chancellor “is just a worn-out president,” there was never anything worn out about this priest and scholar, who always drew his humor and his search for truth from his Irish heritage, and his toughness in doing what’s right from his years growing up in Texas.

The best advice he ever received was quite simple: Do what’s right. And if he could change anything to make the world a better place, he would place more attention on early education – first, second, third grade – teaching right from wrong, good from bad, doing what’s just, seeking truth in all things.

Perhaps Father’s most poignant moment in his storied career at Gonzaga was on a visit to a local hospital to see his friend Harry Magnuson, who was instrumental in supporting him in his early days as president.

“Harry reached out and took my hand. He said ‘Father (he always called me Father), it’s all about love. It is ALL about love.’

“It meant so much to me to hear him say those words. ‘It’s all about love.’ As St. John said, ‘God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.’ As it turned out, that was Harry’s final day on Earth.”

He knew exactly what Harry was saying, for in his soul, Fr. Coughlin himself is all about love.