Every May, the eighth-grade students at Prince of Peace School, Milwaukee, go on a retreat to Camp Gray in Reedsburg in the Madison Diocese for three days and two nights. For the past four years, program director Paul Coakley had been there to help the kids have a memorable experience.
“He was almost over the top,” Bryan Klister, teacher at Prince of Peace, said. “He had a ton of energy and enthusiasm. I wasn’t sure where he was getting it from.”
During those days, Coakley would teach the kids about the environment, sustainability and “taking care of God’s creation.” He would also help cook the s’mores, make campfires, teach the kids rock climbing and take them hiking.
“You felt that you were being inspired along the way with the kids,” Klister said. “It wasn’t just a retreat for the kids; you were being energized as well.”
Coakley was a natural outdoorsman from California who graduated from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Katie Eck went to college with Coakley and remembered the guy he was back then.
“He was incredibly charismatic and energetic,” Eck said. “He grew up in California with my husband whom he introduced me to in college. My husband has known him since he was 6 years old.”
Eck said Coakley made sure everyone around him was always taken care of.
“As soon as you meet him, he makes you feel special,” Eck said.
Each spring, Klister and other staff members of Prince of Peace would reach out to Coakley to help plan the next retreat.
“It didn’t matter how often you talked to him; he knew who you were and was there for you no matter what you needed,” he said. “He was always there for us and always deep in prayer.”
This past March the school was organizing another retreat.
“We were starting to set up our next retreat and we figured Paul would be there for us again,” Klister said.
Staff members at Prince of Peace were shocked to learn what had transpired in Coakley’s life over the past year.
With a wife, three children and a fourth on the way, the family moved to Tennessee last summer where Coakley, 34, was to start a new job and the family was planning to renovate a 100-year-old house. But, in December 2014, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had metastasized to his lungs and brain by the time he was diagnosed. The cancer moved so quickly, he died less than four weeks after his diagnosis.
Coakley’s friend, Mary Wilkerson, delivered the eulogy at his funeral, expressing the disbelief his friends felt.
“Like all of us here, we can’t believe this is real life,” she said, adding, “Although, there is a part of me that thinks it’s fitting that Paul gets to see Jesus first. And, without an ounce of doubt, I know, right now, my friend is with Jesus. Heck, he’s probably already offered the Blessed Mother a swing dance.”
She described how in the weeks after people learned of his illness, they said things like, “‘This guy is different.’ ‘This guy is the best.’ ‘This guy shows people Christ.’ And that might be what makes this all so hard,” she said.
Three months after her husband died, Ann Coakley gave birth to their fourth child, a boy, named Paul Blaze.
In a letter posted to her Facebook page, Ann expressed her grief and her gratitude to all those who havesupported the family.
“My heart is so torn in rejoicing that my husband is celebrating before the Lord and my own selfishness for wishing he was still by my side,” she wrote. “I mourn that my unborn child will never know how incredible, joyful and loving his/her father was… I want them to know how incredible their father was and how he impacted the world by his crazy antics, humble prayer life and beautiful endless love for all around him. I want my babies to know those stories,” she wrote.
“They had already decided if they had a boy they wanted to name him Blaze,” Eck said. “Ann decided to keep that name. They’re going to call him Blaze but she wanted to name him after Paul.”
The news shocked the Prince of Peace community who hadn’t heard of the death until they began to organize this year’s retreat.
“It’s hard to put into words what he was for us,” Klister said. “Yet his death really impacted the staff.”
The news of his death inspired Klister to help the Coakley family.
“I felt that we needed to step up and do a little bit more,” he said. “Paul did all this work for you, you can do something to help out. It was like our payback time.”
Klister, a parish council member at St. Florian Parish, West Milwaukee, asked if they could organize a fish fry fundraiser.
“St. Florian’s doesn’t have a festival this year,” he said. “Everybody was told that May 1 was going to be our last fish fry of the season.”
Despite that announcement, St. Florian parishioners were willing to help out anyway.
“We knew that the spirit would be there, that they’d be willing to jump in for us,” Klister said.
“He’s worth it,” Klister said of Coakley. “The amount of time he put in, the dedication he put in, you knew he was a genuine person.”
Eck was surprised and pleased to hear about the fundraiser.
“They can certainly use every bit of it for the long term,” she said. “(Ann is) going to need everything for them (the children).”