Remembering the legacy of Gonzaga's Fr. Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J.

Rev. Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J. dedicated 42 years of service to Gonzaga University.

There are few lives as difficult to encapsulate as that of the Rev. Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J. 

“Father Barney,” as he was often known, died on the morning of Jan. 28 in Los Gatos, California, at the age of 97. He will be remembered by many as Gonzaga’s longest-tenured president and chancellor — a man who dedicated 42 years of his life to the university and surrounding community, taking over in a period of dire financial need in 1974 and retiring in 2016 from a completely transformed institution. 

But to view Coughlin solely through the breadth of his accomplishments doesn’t do justice to a life that those close to him say was guided by the most human of principles: love.

“He was masterful at building relationships with people,” said Dale Goodwin, GU’s director of public relations, who worked with Coughlin every day for over two decades. “When he talked to you, you felt like you were the most important person to him in his life. 

“And it was authentic. It was genuine. There was nothing put-on about that. That’s the way he was.”

Well-regarded for touching the faces and pinching the cheeks of those he knew, Coughlin treasured human connection. 

He often walked around campus to strike up conversations with strangers, seeking to learn more about their connections to the community.

“I always appreciated the students coming up and introducing themselves and establishing those associations with me,” Coughlin told Goodwin in 2017 for an article in Gonzaga Magazine. “It’s good for the students to feel at home, and I enjoyed seeing their smiling faces.”

From his first day onward, the students were of utmost priority for Coughlin, even as the university initially struggled to stay afloat financially. 

“He had unshakable faith in God and in the goodness of others,” said GU President Thayne McCulloh in an email to The Bulletin. “He believed in Gonzaga with his heart and soul; and in the end, everything he did was for students and to support their learning.”

Born in 1922, he grew up in Texas as one of five siblings during the Great Depression. This instilled a certain level of toughness and grit at a young age, but Goodwin said “his sense of humor and joy for life” came from his Irish-American background.

As a 20-year-old, he was headed toward a career with the Santa Fe Railroad when he felt a calling to the priesthood that he could not ignore.

“You’re a fool if God is calling you for something, and you don’t accept,” he told Jesuits West Magazine when discussing his choice to become a Jesuit. “God, after all, is God.”

Coughlin entered the Society of Jesus in 1942 and was ordained 13 years later. He earned degrees in philosophy and theology at St. Louis University and went on to receive a master’s from University of Southern California and a Ph.D. from Brandeis University.

“He was a genuine Jesuit,” said Fr. Bob Lyons, S.J., a professor of integrated media and fellow Jesuit who lived with Coughlin for almost all of his time at GU. “He went where there was a need, he did what was necessary to meet the need.”

Before Coughlin began his tenure as the university’s president, GU was facing a deficit in its budget of over $1 million with rapidly dropping enrollment and struggling academic programs — something he was not told before he accepted the job. But in 2020, the school now has over 2,000 more students enrolled and increases growth at a yearly rate, much of which can be credited to his work.

“Fr. Coughlin was intent upon leaving Gonzaga a better and stronger university than the institution he inherited,” McCulloh said. “He worked hard at doing things that would achieve that aim: fundraising, building the facilities we needed, working to strengthen academic programs, improving campus life.”

He did so primarily through his skill at developing relationships with benefactors and a dichotomy of gentleness paired with a firm vision for the future of the school. And once GU was back on solid financial ground, he sought to find ways to expand and enrich its experiences for students.

“He was a very kind person,” Lyons said. “He was also a very good administrator. Sometimes those don’t blend, you know, but they did with him.”

Coughlin’s mark on the campus is unmistakable to this day, most clearly through the buildings or rooms that bear either his surname or the surnames of those who bought into his vision for the school — the Woldsons, the Jepsons and the Hemmingsons, to name a few. 

But he wasn’t interested in the notoriety — the Chancellor’s room in the Jundt Museum was supposed to be named the Coughlin room, but he insisted they change the name to something not directly referencing himself. The residence hall and auditorium that would eventually be named after him would become a reality after his departure.

During that time, GU, just as Coughlin himself did, became considerably more integrated in the Spokane community. He was the first Jesuit in the country to chair a chamber of commerce when he did so for Spokane in 1988, and he served on over 30 similar committees over those 42 years.

“He never saw himself as superior to other people, he could relate socially and very comfortably with some of the most prestigious people in the area — benefactors, board chairs and the political people,” Lyons said. “But he could also relate to the housekeepers and he could relate to the grounds people and he didn’t shift his personality. He was always Barney when he met with them.”

In the mid-90’s, after multiple reports of racial discrimination at GU’s law school, he worked with then-Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty to create the city’s Task Force on Race Relations and stage the first community congress on race relations at the Spokane convention center. 

“Race and equality weren’t big in the conversation in Spokane until that happened,” Goodwin said. “And I think it was Fr. Coughlin more than any other individual that initially got the conversation started.”

Even the school’s now-renowned basketball prowess can be partially traced back to his guiding hand. An ardent supporter of GU athletics, he frequently traveled for games with old friends and lobbied for continued investment that would allow for future growth.

By 1996, Coughlin was in his 70’s and sought a transition to a less fast-paced role at the university, one where he wasn’t on his feet for over 12 hours a day. But both he and those at the school still wanted him on campus. He would become the school’s chancellor for the next 20 years, still cultivating those relationships and contacts for the benefit of the university.

“They wanted him to honor him by, not just simply saying, well, you’re retired and gone,” Lyons said. “So the way they honored him was to make him chancellor.”

In 2016, he retired and moved to California to live at Sacred Hearts Jesuit Center, the Jesuits West retirement and healthcare facility where he would spend the last years of his life. Despite being faced with the realities of older age and losing loved ones — along with the geographical distance from the campus he loved — he found peace in his commitment to God above all else.

“God calls us to work for him and with him,” he told Jesuits West a few months before his own passing. “He calls us to live for him and with him. You have to resign yourself to the reality of what life is — you come and go, and you do your darndest. 

“And tomorrow I may pass away, but when I do, I hope it’s in God’s good hands.”

 

Connor Gilbert is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @ConnorJGilbert.

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