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‘We all have to protect our environment,’ said Jack Coughlin, who died at 78

Jack Coughlin
Jack Coughlin

Lying in a hospital bed in February, struggling to form words a couple of weeks after he was struck by an SUV and paralyzed from the neck down, Jack Coughlin knew what he wanted his legacy to be.

“We all have to protect our environment,” he said in a video call with his children and a Globe reporter. “We have no other choice. It’s not about me. It’s about the future.”

Mr. Coughlin, who died April 17 in Berkshire Medical Center, was an ardent environmentalist who, in a literal way, walked the walk. He also regularly raised his voice for the cause in meetings with local groups, municipal boards, and the state Legislature.

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Though his family said the exact cause of Mr. Coughlin’s death is as yet undetermined, pending the results of tests, he had been hospitalized for three months after suffering multiple fractures.

On Jan. 20, after watching President Biden’s inauguration, Mr. Coughlin went outside for his self-appointed daily task of picking up roadside trash. While crossing Mill Street in Agawam, where he lived, he was struck by a sport utility vehicle.

Mr. Coughlin’s grander legacy can been seen in the parks he helped create, and in his efforts on behalf of expanding the state’s bottle deposit law to diminish the amount of litter along roadsides and waterways.

But his efforts went beyond organizing and his vocal advocacy at government meetings. At an age when many relax into retirement, Mr. Coughlin often walked some 10 miles a day, filling one bag after another with scraps of trash that people couldn’t be bothered to dispose of properly.

He saw hope in a task that most might find hopeless.

“I think the biggest thing with my father is that he felt a single person could make a difference,” said his son, Sean of East Longmeadow.

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“So he never gave in to anybody telling him, ‘No, Jack, you can’t do that.’ Or they would say themselves, ‘I’m nobody. What difference can I make?’ And my father always said, ‘You can and will make a difference if you put a little effort in.’ ”

Part of Mr. Coughlin’s environmental efforts were aimed at securing passage of the Legislature’s House Bill 2881, which would expand the state’s bottle deposit law to include nips — the miniature liquor bottles that glitter on the ground.

How many empty nips did Mr. Coughlin pick up in his daily travels? No one will ever know, but clearly there will be more kicking around in Agawam in his absence.

“He will be missed,” Gerald Smith, an Agawam city councilor, said at the council’s April 20 meeting, thereminder.com website reported.

At various points, most people in the community had seen Mr. Coughlin picking up nips, Smith said, adding that “whatever we can do to honor his memory I would love to be able to do it.”

While Mr. Coughlin was hospitalized, the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit based in California, presented him with its 2021 Pat Franklin Courageous Spirit Award, named for the organization’s late founder, Patricia Franklin.

“Few volunteers have put in more hours nor logged more miles in pursuit of a clean environment,” the organization said.

John William Coughlin Jr. was born in Quincy on Feb. 8, 1943, a son of John W. Coughlin Sr., a former chief of the state Department of Public Utilities, and Ida E. Scibilio, a stay-at-home mother.

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The older of two brothers, Mr. Coughlin lived in Quincy until his family moved to Springfield, where he graduated from high school.

He then joined the Army Reserves and served in a New Jersey hospital, his son said.

Mr. Coughlin worked briefly for Mass Mutual in Springfield, Sean said, “but he liked to be outdoors.”

Switching to the telephone company, Mr. Coughlin worked running lines from utility poles into houses and installing phones for many years before moving to an indoor, customer support job. By then, the telephone company was called Verizon, and he had logged 35 years of service when he retired.

Though his lineman job focused on installation and repairs, he always alerted customers to new features and was so successful in persuading them to upgrade that “on many occasions he was the top salesman,” his son said. “He always did above and beyond.”

Community activism offered Mr. Coughlin another avenue for his attentiveness, Sean said.

A former semi-pro soccer player, Mr. Coughlin coached his son’s soccer team in Springfield and became a leader of a local soccer association.

Mr. Coughlin also helped found the nonprofit Outer Belt Civic Improvement Association about 40 years ago, and set in motion various lobbying efforts to create public spaces such as Treetop Park.

A dedicated fisherman, he founded and became president of the New England Shad Association, through which he advocated for increased and improved public access to the Connecticut River and various tributaries. And he pushed for the Medina Street boat ramp to be renovated in Chicopee.

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Mr. Coughlin also lobbied state and local officials for more health care clinics, more parks, more festivals, and more community events.

“The list keeps going,” Sean said. “Everything he did, it was all about bringing people together.”

Mr. Coughlin, whose marriage ended in divorce, had recently lived in Agawam, across the Connecticut River from Springfield.

“I can’t express enough how much he means to our community,” Agawam Mayor William Sapelli told the Globe in February, after Mr. Coughlin was hospitalized.

Toting a 5-gallon bucket and wielding a Nifty Nabber cleaning tool, Mr. Coughlin could be seen collecting trash in all kinds of weather, sometimes beyond when daylight faded in the evening’s dark.

“He really got into the cleaning. The cleaning began to take up more of his free time,” Sean said.

Focusing on rivers and ponds, Mr. Coughlin and his efforts were so well-known that other fishermen would seek his assistance.

“People would call him,” Sean said. “They’d go fishing somewhere and say, ‘Hey Jack, this place is a mess.’ ”

Mr. Coughlin unfailingly responded.

After he died, the Westfield River Watershed Association held its spring river cleanup in April in his honor.

In a TV interview with Western Mass News, State Senator John Velis, a Westfield Democrat who attended the cleanup, called Mr. Coughlin “a beautiful human being. It’s a really painful loss, so carrying on his legacy, trying to push forward what he would want, it’s a real honor.”

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A private service will be held for Mr. Coughlin, who in addition to his son, Sean, leaves a daughter, Erin of Springfield; a brother, Steven of Buzzards Bay; his former wife, Sharon Coughlin-McConnell of Springfield; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson

“He really saw things through to the end, and he persevered so many times when everybody told him there’s no way to make that happen,” Sean said. “Nothing stopped him.”

Throughout Mr. Coughlin’s years, to his last days, “he led his life by showing people that a single person can make a difference,” Sean said.

“He didn’t know the meaning of the words ‘give up.’ And that was true up until the very last minutes of him being alive. He refused to even consider that his death might come.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.