A friend of mine from college named Paul Coakley recently passed away. His death has had a tremendous impact on my life and in the lives of countless others. I would like to write a tribute to the man and the legacy that he leaves behind.
The first notable encounter I had with Paul Coakley was a camping trip in September, 2000. I had just transferred as a sophomore to Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio and was interested in its Household program. One such Household (The Brothers of the Eternal Song) was going camping in order to celebrate the Feast Day of the Household’s patron Saint, St. Joseph of Copertino. I was invited and accepted.
On the way to the camping site, we took a wrong turn but thankfully, Paul Coakley and a couple others knew the location. They had headed out to it earlier in Coakley’s famous truck “Josephine.”[i] They found and brought us to camp. We parked in an open area and frisbees were brought out. We then walked down to the site where there was a beautiful waterfall. We did various things until nightfall that I no longer recall, though I do remember the campfire that night and eating a quail.
The next morning I woke up early and witnessed a phenomenon the Brothers called “sleep utopia.” This light-hearted rolling over of sleepy Brothers in sleeping bags in an effort to wake them up was hilarious. During the day, the Brothers swung from a rope that hung over the waterfall and jumped into the water from it as well as jumped from adjoining ledges. Coakley went up the rope and over some rough-edged tree bark—to the horror and chagrin of those watching below. This is where I learned of/witnessed for myself that Paul Coakley had a “wild” side to his character. There would be many more of these moments either told to me in story or seen by my own eyes.
What was impressive to me was the balance the man kept. He was “wild” one moment and then “normal” the next. For example, at the end of the camping trip mentioned above, Paul led the prayer thanking God for the opportunity to grow in brotherhood. Though the exact words escape me now, it was a manly prayer that made an impression.
One night in September, 2000, I was hanging out in St. Francis Hall. Knowing that I had to walk back down to my own dorm room in the dark in a somewhat dangerous area, Paul had practically ordered me to stay in his room. I did so and we talked for a bit. I explained to him my interest in the Brothers. Paul listened to me and was genuinely interested in having me onboard. Though I did not explain it to Paul in these words, my desire was to be in a group with people like Paul. He loved people with such innocence and joy that one could not help but want to be around it. He was a major character in my decision to want to join the Brothers and he personifies all my reasons for joining.
As time went on, Paul figured out that I was going to ask to join the Brothers (in University nomenclature, we call this “to intent”). Right before I had put in my intent at a Brothers’ function in October, Paul, with a smirk on his face, a heart full of expectation, and with his child-like voice asked me, “Are you going to do it?” I did not give a straight answer because I wanted to surprise everyone, but there was no fooling Paul—he knew I would. After I had put in my intent, the Coordinator brought me to his room, gave me some materials and instructed me that I needed to ask someone to be my “big brother.”[ii] I had some time to think and my decision came during the Household’s retreat.
On Saturday, we meditated on the 2nd meditation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. It was at this time that I decided to ask Coakley to be my big brother. I was sitting against a telephone pole and off in the distance I saw Paul sitting across the street, reflecting. I thought to myself that Paul would be a good big brother. I wrestled with it for a bit and wasn’t sure if I should ask. In the end, I went in search of him to ask (he had moved from his earlier location). I found him at the stairs in the place at which we were staying and asked him. Paul lit up like a Christmas tree as he responded, “Yeah….I would love to be your big brother. I’ve never had a little brother before. I would be [extremely] honored to be your big brother!”
The candidacy ceremony was 4 days later. This is the Brothers’ formal “welcome to thinking about joining us” ceremony. Afterwards, we headed to the pub in the JC Williams Center. Candidacy lasted a month and then drew to a close with its customary events. As for the induction ceremony, just before it began, Coakley had arrived to pick me up from my dorm room and we were talking for a bit in my room.
After the induction, there was the party. First we went to the Pub then we moved on to an off-campus house of one of the older Brothers. It was here that we were given a name that we were to go by in the Household. Later on, I left the house with Coakley. We went back to St. Francis Hall where I got my stuff and Paul drove me back down to my dorm room in Josephine.
After that first semester with Paul, I had one year in Household with him and was even his roommate for the Fall 2001 semester—the same semester that he was the Household’s Coordinator. Much could be said about this year and what it meant to me. It suffices to say that I grew in many ways and not the least of which was because of Paul Coakley ever calling me on to greater things than myself by his love for God, neighbor and his penchant for road trips and adventures.
One such road trip involved crashing Josephine into a telephone pole. Paul and I drove to my house after the Fall ’01 semester had ended. He stayed overnight at my house if memory serves and wanted to see my former college. After we saw it, we were either driving around or heading back to my home. It was snowing and the roads were treacherous.
Seeing opportunity whereas others saw caution, Paul was doing donuts in the middle of the road. To him it was fun, but I was probably whiter than the snow outside. I grew up in this weather and knew how dangerous it was. Paul, who was from California I must add, was skating on thin ice (pun intended) and I feared the worst. Paul was having a ball though as I prepared for a massive coronary.
The moment came when Josephine began to slide. I was in the front seat when suddenly he looked at me with a look on his face. That look confirmed my worst fear—we were about to be in an accident. Paul’s hands were over the steering wheel and he was looking at me—half-smiling, half serious—and making noises to the effect of “Uh oh, uh oh!” We slid with some speed into a nearby telephone pole. We were safe as we did not crash with a lot of speed, but it was enough to cause a decent dent to Josephine’s front that might have affected the engine to some degree.
Regretfully, I do not recall much of the aftermath. There was a general/corner store near the scene of the accident. We went in there to call a tow truck and then on to an automotive shop. At the shop, we got the story on the truck and what was necessary to fix it. We were going to have to stay at a hotel overnight, and it was already dark or getting dark by this time. Someone from the shop might have given us a lift to a nearby hotel. We stayed at one overnight, got the truck the next day, and drove back to my house.
Throughout this event, Paul was incredibly calm. To the best of my recollection, he never once said anything uncouth. To him, this was an adventure, but to me it was a nightmare. The contrast between Paul’s lightheartedness and my seriousness could not have been any more striking. God was teaching me a lesson: how not to be so serious about life.
In the end, of the year and a half I spent with Paul at Franciscan University it is etched into my memory the character of a man who was larger-than-life. He loved his friends passionately to a fault and with an unbelievable joy. He made you feel like you mattered and would call you on to great things—even if you felt/thought that you could not go on…or blow a gasket.
There is a lot that can be said about Paul Coakley and I regret that we were not able to spend more time together in our post-collegiate years. I could not make it to his wedding in 2008 to his wonderful wife, Ann Brindle Coakley and only met his family (Ann, Christian, Damian and Caeli Grace) at his funeral (Ann was pregnant with their fourth child, Paul Blaze, who has since happily been delivered into the world). However, I take some comfort in knowing that while Paul has certainly had a greater impact on my life, I realized at his wake that he also had a small, specific, but meaningful influence.
Paul loved the outdoors and always had his gear with him, including keeping his keys on a carabiner. Thinking that this was actually a good idea, I followed Paul’s example. In these many intervening years I had forgotten this fact. When I approached Paul’s casket at his wake and saw some carabiners lying with him, the realization hit me like a ton of bricks. I began to see that in a sense a part of Paul was close to me all these years.
I will always treasure my memories of Paul Coakley, his witness to life and the Catholic Faith. The Scripture says that it is the Lord who calls us home, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). Dare I say, however, that these words will be all the more impoverished were they not followed by Paul saying in his characteristic, child-like, joy-filled voice, “Hey, Kevin! You made it!”
Until that day, I will always keep my carabiner on hand as a reminder to hold on and stay attached to what is important in life—God, family, friends, and to love these passionately. In short, to “Live Like Paul.”
If you liked this story, would you consider helping Ann Coakley and her young children?
Please visit www.lovelikepaul.com for more information.
[i] This was a white Ford Ranger truck with the cover on the back and was a stick shift. The model year was somewhere between 1990 and 1993. [ii] A big brother in the Brothers’ Household is someone who helps guide you through the process of becoming a Brother. Also, the “Coordinator” is the one chosen by the Household to lead the Household, work with the University’s student life office, etc.