My new book “Pass the Nuts” is now available. Here’s a sample from the book—taken from Chapter 18.
When I was a kid, people sometimes asked if I were related to Father Coughlin, the radio priest from Royal Oak, Michigan. They never used his first name, which was Charles. He was simply, “Father Coughlin.” In my earlier years at The Plain Dealer several of my sports department colleagues kiddingly called me “Father Coughlin.” We had nicknames for everybody back then. Over the years our hockey writer Richard Passan shortened it. He called me simply, “Father.” Ironically, Father Coughlin was an anti-Semitic madman and Passan was Jewish. On the other hand, I called Passan “Maurice” after the great hockey player Maurice Richard. Over the years I shortened it to “Mo.” Hal Lebovitz once asked me, “Why do you call him Mo?” I explained the hockey reference and Hal was satisfied. Later I learned that ‘Mo’ was a disrespectful term for Jews. How were we to know?
The last time we talked, I said, “Hi, Maurice.”
He said, “Hi, Father.”
In the late 1930s and into the ’40s, Father Coughlin was infamous for his highly politicized network radio sermons on Sunday afternoons. It was estimated that at his peak of influence he had 30 million listeners and received 80,000 pieces of mail every week. He preached against communism, even though his thinking exactly paralleled the communists, and he was sympathetic to Hitler. Somebody should have told him to shut the hell up. The American bishops, the Vatican and President Franklin Roosevelt finally got together and pressured the archbishop of Detroit to silence him. Father Coughlin was ordered to turn off the microphone, get off the damn radio and confine his preaching to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. He gritted his teeth and complied. He pastored his parish until he retired in 1966.
When I was 12 years old, we took a family vacation in the car, our green 1941 Plymouth. We went north through Niagara Falls into French-speaking Canada and back home through Detroit, where we visited Father Coughlin’s parish church, the National Shrine of the Little Flower in the suburb of Royal Oak. It was very modern, the first circular church I had ever seen. I think we went there because Father Coughlin was once a celebrity and my parents thought they might actually run into him, not because they endorsed what he stood for.
Afterward, when people asked about my connection to Father Coughlin, I would say. “Not related to him. Don’t know him. But I’ve been to his church.” The church, incidentally, is still operating. My son, Joe, once had a college roommate who grew up in that parish. In fact, he was an altar boy there.
“Do people still talk about Father Coughlin?” I asked him.
“Who is Father Coughlin?” he replied.
* * *
I have a fairly common Irish name, but people have a hard time pronouncing it. I must admit it’s challenging. Even my father and his six brothers couldn’t agree.
Some pronounced it with a “ck” in the middle. They said “COCK-lin.” My Uncle Frank said it with an “aw” in the middle. He said, “CAWG-lin.” I grew up saying, “COG-lin.” The well-known football coach Tom Coughlin said he pronounces his name the same as I do, but when he coached at Boston College people in Beantown called him, “KOFF-lin,” and that’s the name that stuck.
“I got tired of correcting them,” he said to me once during a telephone conference call.
* * *
When I was in high school at St. Edward in Lakewood, there was a kid two years older than me on the other side of town at Benedictine who had the same name. He also was Dan Coughlin and his name was in the papers frequently because he was an outstanding lineman on Benedictine’s football team that played in back-to-back Charity Games at the Stadium in 1952 and ’53.
Men who worked with my father on the railroad asked him if the Benedictine lineman was his son.
“No, he’s not,” said my dad, “and I’m not related to Father Coughlin, either.”
The Benedictine Dan went on to play for the University of Miami Hurricanes and then went into college coaching, most notably at Memphis, Kentucky and Florida. Naturally, he recruited the Cleveland area, which caused no end of confusion. When he was a young football coach, I was a young sportswriter at The Plain Dealer and my job was the high school beat. When we called high school coaches on the phone, the coaches never knew if they were talking to the football recruiter or the newspaper reporter. That led to puzzling conversations. I called a coach for a routine feature story on a kid and he began by saying the kid doesn’t test well and he would need a junior college and a tutor. “Huh?” I sometimes said.
I imagine there were times when recruiter Dan Coughlin was asked, “Do you want to come out and take a picture?”
“Huh?” he probably said.
Years later when I took a job with CBS in Miami, old timers there thought I was the former Hurricane football player returning to the site of his previous conquests. They were disappointed to learn otherwise.
One day at Calder Racetrack in Miami a press box attendant rushed up to me.
“You just missed Dan Coughlin,” he said. “He was here not half an hour ago.”
Dan returned to Miami occasionally because he liked the horses. We had much in common. Is it any wonder we were often confused with each other? That was our last chance to meet. I was out of there within a year in the spring of 1990 and Dan died of cancer eight months later at the age of 54. I regretted that we had never met. I always wanted to hear his side of the story.
We are linked forever in other ways. Years ago Abbot Father Roger Gries, O.S.B., who later became a bishop, made me an honorary alumnus of Benedictine and, to reinforce it, they send me an invoice every year. When they get my check I hope they credit the right guy.
“I’m going to find this guy,” I said.
I didn’t even have to try. We were tripping over each other with connections. He knew some of my cousins who went to high school with him at Padua. At one time he worked for Vince Hvizda, an old friend of mine. His mother knew my niece.
Best of all, we worked at The Plain Dealer at the same time in the early 1980s.
“I worked in the advertising department as a copy checker. It was my first job out of high school in 1980,” he said when I reached him on the phone at his Middleburg Heights home.
“Did you ever become a writer, a humor writer?” I asked.
“Never did,” he said. “I’m just a barroom humorist.”
He’s married with two children and he works as a printer at Admiral Products on West 150th Street in Cleveland.
“My mother was often asked if she was related to Dan Coughlin,” Dan said. “She always said, ‘Yes, he’s my son.’ ”
My mother always said the same thing. What a coincidence.
* * *
In recent years a fellow named Dan Coughlin began turning up in Bud Shaw’s columns in The Plain Dealer. Bud writes whimsical columns and encourages reader participation. Dan Coughlin was a frequent contributor. The guy was good. His items were clever. Everybody thought he was me. He didn’t embarrass me, but I was uncomfortable with the message it seemed to convey, that I was so hungry to see my name in print that I was giving away my stuff. I’m a professional. This is not a hobby. The other Dan Coughlin, however, was a hobbyist just having a good time.