Died 28 January 2020
Jesuit Father Bernard J. Coughlin, Gonzaga University’s beloved longtime president and chancellor, died on Jan. 28 at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos, California. He was 97. He is Gonzaga’s longest tenured president, 1974-1996, and its first and only chancellor, 1996-2016. He served the University for 42 years.
Fr. Coughlin was born Dec. 7, 1922, in Galveston, Texas, the second of five children of Eugene and Celeste Coughlin. His father worked for the railroad, and "Barney," as his friends and family called him, began working for the railroad, as well. But he kept feeling a nudge from God to enter the priesthood, once remarking, "If God calls, you can't tell Him no." He entered the Society of Jesus on Sept. 2, 1942 and was ordained a priest on June 16, 1955. He earned a bachelor's degree from St. Louis University, a master's from University of Southern California, and his Ph.D. from Brandeis University.
While serving as professor and dean of the School of Social Service at St. Louis University, Fr. Coughlin accepted an offer in 1974 from then chair of the Gonzaga Board of Trustees, Harry Magnuson, to become the university’s 23rd president. He came at a time of financial struggle, but by building strong relationships with business, civic and government leaders, increasing enrollment, fortifying Gonzaga's academic programs and growing the endowment, the university began to prosper. He inspired others to see the value in promoting a vision for a strong, values-oriented university.
In 1988, Fr. Coughlin was elected chair of the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce. He was the first Jesuit priest to serve as a chamber of commerce chair in the United States, and his business acumen, compassion for the dignity of every human being, and his desire to see this community thrive, placed him among the influential business leaders of the time. In the mid-1990s, Fr. Coughlin joined Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty in founding the Task Force on Race Relations, which provided the catalyst for more concentrated efforts to address social tensions related to race and diversity.
Speaking in 1996 to a group of 800 colleagues and friends, many of them business and civic leaders, Fr. Coughlin said if he had one thing he, and the community, needed to work on, it would be loving one another. It was a simple message, but not simplistic. Indeed, love is a theme that characterized his life. He went out of his way to show people, through simple notes or a phone call, that you were special and important – and that he was praying for you.
On the global front, in 1986 Fr. Coughlin chaired the Northwest Citizens Forum on Defense Wastes. In 2005, during his time as Chancellor, he served on the International Moral Court, researching human atrocities in Iran and encouraging the government to create a humane set of laws and punishment. Early in his career, he was a Fulbright scholar at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia, with which Gonzaga now enjoys an educational partnership, as well as a social work consultant in Guatemala, Peru and Chile.
During his tenure at Gonzaga, Fr. Coughlin oversaw the planning for, and/or construction of new or vastly renovated buildings for the schools of Engineering (1984), Business Administration (1987) and Education (1994), as well as Martin Centre for Athletics (1986), Foley Center (1992), Jundt Art Center and Museum (1995) and Dussault and Burch student residences (1995-1997). His passion for securing the University's future was evident in his penchant to grow the endowment fund from $1 million in 1974 to $60 million in 1996.
During his time the University's reputation grew significantly, earning top 10 ratings in U.S. News & World Report's Regional Rankings in its annual Best Colleges publication.
His empathy was an incredible part of his character. His was a life of prayer, although the early-morning solitude of his prayer did not admit of easy observation. He lived a life of sacrifice, although no one kept good track of the countless hours he spent visiting the ill, wounded and dying members of our community. As priest and counselor, he became personally connected with many families – officiating at weddings, conducting baptisms, anointing the sick, celebrating lives and grieving at funerals, and sharing holiday meals.
Fr. Coughlin's impact was noted by others. Among many honors, he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from St. Edward’s University (Austin, Texas) in 1981, the Anti-Defamation League Public Service Award in 1992, an honorary Doctor of Laws from Seattle University in 1994, and was inducted into the Spokane Citizen Hall of Fame in 2018.
Fr. Coughlin is survived by his sister Marilyn Wood and numerous nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents, and brothers Larry, Pat and Donald. Donations in memory of Fr. Coughlin may be directed to the Coughlin Family Scholarship, Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J. Endowed Chair, or the Fund for Gonzaga at Gonzaga University; or to the Jesuits West Province of the Society of Jesus.
Please visit www.gonzaga.edu/Coughlin for stories, photos, videos, exhibits of his life and more.