Jean and Jim Coolican Careers: She’s a professor at Gonzaga. He’s a state school official located in Olympia.
The other night, Jim and Jean Coolican enjoyed a long talk.
They discussed world politics, favorite sports teams and players, their jobs, their children, what they would do for Valentine’s Day - the normal stuff of married life.
But the conversation served as more than just a way to reconnect after a trying day. It was a way to reaffirm the bond that has carried them through nearly 33 years of marriage. Often during those years, the telephone has been their lifeline, the emotional touchstone that links them.
Jim works in Olympia and Jean works in Spokane; every night, they talk by phone. It’s one way they can communicate regularly with any real sense of intimacy.
And they do want that communication. Living apart is tough, but the Coolicans know it won’t last forever.
They want to make sure their marriage does.
Jim is deputy supervisor of the state Department of Public Instruction. He helped school superintendent Terry Bergeson make the transition into her new job more than 16 months ago, and he’s overseen the department’s day-to-day operations ever since.
His duties require an ongoing presence in Olympia, especially when the Legislature is in session.
Jean is a tenured professor of education at Gonzaga University who not only teaches in Spokane but regularly holds seminars in Canada, Hawaii and various sites on Washington’s West Side.
“I didn’t plan on doing this,” Jim says of taking the SPI job. “When Terry Bergeson asked me to do it, I initially said no. But one thing led to another, so…”
It wasn’t that easy, of course. Jim had been working at Spokane’s Education Service District 101, where he worked with Bergeson on various educational projects.
But you don’t spend 29 years as a Marine Corps officer, earning a graduate university degree in the process, without being driven by some inner need to succeed.
Jean has similar drive.
It was a challenge to hold their family together during Jim’s several tours of overseas duty - including one yearlong stint in Okinawa and two in Vietnam. It was even more daunting to make sure that her educational and career ambitions weren’t lost along the way.
Married in 1964, the Coolicans have known each other since high school. But, says Jean, “We didn’t date until I was a senior in college and he was a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps.”
The children, Maria and Michael, soon followed.
Then the separations began.
After he earned a master’s degree, Jim was assigned overseas. Jean stayed behind with the children so she could work on her master’s.
While Jean studied for her doctorate at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Jim was stationed at nearby Quantico. He stayed at the base during the week, coming home on weekends.
When their children were off at college, Jim was stationed overseas again. Jean took a job in Asia teaching for the University of Southern California. They met in various Asian cities whenever their schedules permitted.
Nothing they ever experienced eclipsed what they went through in 1968.
Jim was in Vietnam just as the Tet offensive was occurring. Jean, who was living in California with their two children, was facing her own problems.
While visiting some friends one day, son Michael - then just a toddler - fell and hit his head. The impact was hard enough to interrupt the flow of the boy’s cranial fluid. Doctors rushed him into surgery.
“At the same time,” Jean recalls, “I got a phone call that Jim’s mother had fallen and broken her hip, and that my father was very ill with emphysema. So it was one of those times in life where you think, ‘Well, I don’t think I want to answer the phone or the door anymore.”’
But of course she did. Especially when Jim called from Vietnam. Having been told of his son’s surgery by the Red Cross, Jim - caught in a running firefight - could do little but be a voice of support over the phone. Even that had its downside.
“He called from a field phone,” Jean recalls. “And it was the most horrendous situation I was ever involved in because, of course, you couldn’t talk to him direct. It was all ‘Roger’ and ‘Over’ and I hear all this gunfire in the background. It was just horrifying.”
Then, in quick order, Jim suffered a shrapnel wound and Jean learned she had developed ovarian cysts. The diagnosis sounded familiar: Immediate surgery. One more thing to think about.
Here is the strength that is Jean Coolican. With her husband 10,000 miles away, wounded and facing Viet Cong firepower, she handled the situation with as much calm as she could muster. Her son was operated on and was blind and paralyzed for five days. Once his cranial fluid began to flow again, his recovery began.
“All that happened when she was on her own,” Jim says, the admiration clear in his voice. “There aren’t always easy times. But I think it’s a matter of being psychologically, emotionally and substantively prepared to handle those things.”
“You can talk about how horrible it is to go through,” says Jean. “But when you have those outcomes, you don’t dwell on it. Because look what happened: Jim came home safely, Michael is perfect and we’ve had a wonderful life.”
So what is it that holds the Coolicans together? A common outlook? Mutual respect?
Both of those things. And the self-reliance that the couple has demonstrated over their married life.
There is more, too. The couple talks about values, about the necessity of having a shared vision of the world. If that vision remains in place, everything else will follow.
“I think if you knew both of us, you’d think of us as very different people and perhaps even wonder how these two individuals ever even got together,” Jim says. The key, he says, is in “the understanding and appreciation of what the other person is all about, of what they want to do, what makes the individual happy and what makes you happy collectively.”
“Then,” Jean adds, “the incidentals work out. You just know what you really believe and what’s important. We just make it happen, as they say.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
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