Eugene W. Coughlin, 81, baritone who directed armed forces band

January 27, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For nearly 30 years, Eugene W. Coughlin had traveled the world as a member and later director of the Soldiers' Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band and U.S. Armed Forces Bicentennial Band, performing classics, operatic and popular songs for armed forces members and civilians.

Mr. Coughlin, 81, a baritone soloist who had sung with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the San Francisco Opera Company before joining the U.S. Army Field Band in 1950, died Saturday of a heart attack at Harbor Hospital Center.

Mr. Coughlin was born to a decidedly nonmusical family in Detroit Lakes, Minn., where he was raised on a farm and graduated from high school.

"He always had a good voice and as a youth began singing in the church choirs of northern Minnesota," said a son, Patrick Coughlin of Brooklyn Park.

He began his undergraduate studies at Concordia College in Moosehead, Minn., and enrolled in 1941 as a voice student at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music.

In 1944, he interrupted his studies and enlisted in the Army Air Forces, where he served with the 8th Air Force in England as a tail gunner. He later became a bombardier aboard B-17s and after each bombing run over Germany would sing "Old Man River" as the plane returned to its base in England.

"He'd sing it over the plane's intercom, and the crew [members] considered it their good luck piece as they returned from their mission," said the son.

Mr. Coughlin, who flew 26 missions, was shot down twice and was once forced to land in occupied France.

"They landed in a field, and the local citizens gathered enough gasoline so they could take off, but not before Gene gave his parachute to a young woman so she could make her wedding dress out of the parachute's silk," said Frank Granofsky of Towson, a retired Army sergeant major who was a timpanist with the Army Field Band and friend of nearly 50 years.

After completing his degree in 1946 from the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, Mr. Coughlin began his singing career with the San Francisco Opera Company and appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl.

He befriended John Charles Thomas, the Peabody Conservatory-trained baritone and noted Metropolitan Opera Company star, who invited him to sing with him on the "Westinghouse Hour" television show in the late 1940s. The two remained friends until Mr. Thomas' death in 1960.

"Col. Charles E. Whiting, who was then director of the Army Field Band, heard Gene at the Hollywood Bowl and asked him to join the Field Band as a baritone soloist," said Joe Greco, also a retired sergeant major with the band, who lives in Glen Burnie.

"He was a super-talented vocalist and later conductor. In the early days, when he sang all of the great operatic numbers, he'd tear the house down. He had a great and powerful voice and was so good that he could have performed with the Metropolitan Opera Company," he said.

His signature numbers in addition to "Old Man River," included an aria from "Pagliacci," "Holy City" and "Bless This House."

"He had a very thorough knowledge of music and vocalization and as a baritone had the same quality as Lawrence Tibbett [the American baritone and Metropolitan Opera Company star who died in 1960]. He was that good," said Mr. Granofsky, former member of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

In 1957, Mr. Coughlin was appointed director of the Soldiers' Chorus, which is based at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County.

Through the years, he had performed in the White House for every president from John F. Kennedy to Gerald Ford and had entertained audiences in Carnegie Hall, Royal Festival Hall in London and the Concertgebouw in The Netherlands.

In 1974, he was named command sergeant major of the U.S. Armed Forces Bicentennial Band, which he directed until retiring in 1977.

"For the last 21 years of his life, he never sang or performed again. It was traumatic for him to retire from the Army," said his son. "He just walked away from it."

Mr. Coughlin enjoyed spending time with his family and completing crossword puzzles.

Services for Mr. Coughlin will be held at 11 a.m. today at George J. Gonce Funeral Home, 4001 Ritchie Highway, Brooklyn.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 45 years, the former Ethel L. Gischel; another son, Michael Coughlin of St. Petersburg, Fla.; a daughter, Kathleen Hubbard of Brooklyn Park; a brother, Fred Coughlin of Detroit Lakes; a sister, Alice Erickson of Detroit Lakes; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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