My family was very blessed to know Paul Coakley personally. And in the past few days as his condition worsened and his fight for his life here on earth failed, I think we've all been thinking and reflecting on our experiences with Paul. There's so much to say, and I'm going to give this first post about Paul entirely over to my brother, Scott. Of all us Cruess kids, Scott knew Paul Coakley the best. He and Paul were very good friends at Franciscan University and were both members of the same household (all my brothers joined this particular household). Our families lived a mere 45 minutes away from each other back in California, so we met Paul's whole family and have become good friends with many of them as well over the years. Paul's parents and brother Daniel attended my wedding. It's been years since many of us have seen Paul and the Coakley family because-- life, kids, jobs, distance. But I have been so touched by the community of friends, family, and even strangers who have gathered together physically and through social media to pray for and support Paul and his lovely family. Paul may have passed on from this life, but his memory hasn't, and in the next few blog posts, I want to share some of my family's memories about Paul.
From my brother, Scott....
One of my first memories of Paul was he and Phil Constanzo (the other half of the “PC2”)
at my Freshman Orientation at The Franciscan University of Steubenville, flying off
the stage in a grocery cart. Soon after, he devised a “Joey Coup Lord’s Day” out in the
woods that concluded with Paul “levitating” by jumping out over a cliff connected to
a rope system that he had hung over the branch of a tree (St. Joseph Cupertino is our
Household Saint, known for levitating in the presence of the Eucharist). I later watched
him shimmy about 40 feet or so up the trunk of the tree in order to untie his rope system.
There was also the time that he and Phil convinced me to help them steal all the shower
curtains out of my own dorm. I got caught trying to get the last shower curtain out, but
Paul and Phil strung the rest of the shower curtains across the road near the Cafeteria with
the words “Live the Franciscan Way” across them (At the time their dorm, St. Francis Hall, had community showers).
While other college students were out drinking, Paul took anyone with a taste for
adventure hiking, camping, cliff jumping, rock climbing, canoeing or any other number
of random outdoor activities. Paul is the epitome of “up for anything.” He took me snowboarding for the first time, and in true Paul fashion convinced me to go right to the
top of the mountain with him almost before I even knew how to strap on my board. Of
course, he also stayed with me the whole day while I slid and tumbled down the slopes,
though I am quite sure that he would have much rather spent the day with his more
experienced friends who had come along on the trip as well.
During Christmas break one year, Paul invited me to go on an overnight snow-shoeing
expedition in the Sierra Nevadas. I was excited, but had my doubts that I would be able
to convince my Mom that snow camping was such a good idea. Her response surprised
me though; she let me go because she trusted Paul and his Guardian Angel. So off we went into the High Sierras with little more than a map and a prayer... and an out-of-
tune mini guitar on which Paul and our friend Mike Eck played the one song they knew,
“Free-Falling” as we trudged through the snow. My boots were not even remotely
waterproof, and the zipper broke on my sub-par (as opposed to sub-zero) sleeping bag
that night. I ended up sleeping between Paul and Mike in a small pup tent in an attempt
to stay warm. In the end, we all woke up cold, but far from miserable the next morning.
Paul tried to use bacon grease to waterproof my boots after breakfast, which in the end probably just turned me into bear bait, but we made it back alive, and I wouldn't trade that experience or time spent with Paul for anything.
On another adventure, a group of Brothers (our Christian Fraternity at Steubenville) went
up to Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada for few nights. We had a few canoes full
of guys, and were planning on paddling out to an island up in the more isolated area of
the park. A few of the guys had to leave early, so Paul and I paddled back with them
to where the cars were parked, dropped them off, picked up our friend Ben Gehl’s car
that had broken down on the way up, and then turned around and started paddling back
to meet up with the rest of the group. At one point, Paul looked at the map and found
a “shortcut.” The shortcut ended up taking us across a beaver dam, through a swamp
and then on a cross-country portage up a steep embankment through the middle of the
woods, but we did end up making it back to the camp, and may have even shaved off a few minutes in the end.
After graduation, a group of us decided to take a little road trip from Ohio to Alaska, by
way of Arizona, cramped in the back of Paul’s Toyota pickup truck. We stopped at the
Grand Canyon, played the nickel slots in Las Vegas for a few hours in the middle of the
night for free drinks, switched out the pickup truck for his parent’s 12-passenger van in
California, and headed up the coast to Alaska, where we ate at a restaurant that was in an
old bus, walked on a glacier, hiked along a ridgeline to get a better view of Mt. McKinley
and saw a variety of wildlife, including bear and moose, sometimes a bit too close for
comfort. Alaska may have been the destination, but the entire trip was an adventure.
Come to think of it, pretty much any time you spent time with Paul, was an adventure.
There are stories (that are, in fact, true) of Paul making overnight road trips from Ohio to
Niagara Falls, of turning 3-day weekends into cross-country road trips, of weekend visits
to Steubenville from Mississippi (after he had graduated), of Paul picking up random
hitchhikers and then bringing them home with him, of Paul attempting to use a bed sheet as a parachute from a second-story window and somehow coming away unscathed; Paul once bought a used hang glider and figured out how to use it by trial and error.
Paul showed up to my wedding in Upstate New York with his newly married wife
Annie... in a big rig. That’s right, Paul and Ann got married and spent the first years of
the marriage driving back and forth across the country in an 18-wheeler. That Paul... and
that’s Ann! Absolutely perfect for each other and up for anything!
“All men die, but not all men truly live,” famously quoted by William Wallace in the movie “Braveheart” could very well have been written about Paul Coakley. Paul didn’t
just “Carpe Diem”... he seized the day with both hands and shook all the joy, all the adventure, all the love out of it! We will miss Paul here on Earth, but I am sure he is on to a new, more exciting adventure, and I would not be a bit surprised if, one day, he is the Patron Saint of Outdoorsmen, Road trips and Extreme Sports!