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Professor who “opened doors” for aspiring theatre artists dies

James F. Coakley, emeritus professor of theatre in the Northwestern University School of Communication, died on June 18. He was 80.

Coakley was born on December 12, 1933, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He earned his bachelor of fine arts degree at the Carnegie Mellon Institute of Technology in 1955. From 1956 to 1958, he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps working as a cryptographer. In 1959, he earned his master of arts degree from the University of Minnesota, then arrived at Northwestern to study for a Ph.D. in theatre. He earned his doctorate in 1964.

During his years as a student, he earned a Mellon Scholarship while attending the Carnegie Mellon Institute of Technology, a graduate scholarship from Northwestern University, and a Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Year Fellowship.

Coakley was always involved in theatre, serving as a director or stage manager in local theatre wherever he lived. He taught and participated in theatre productions at Loyola University and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago then the University of Michigan before returning to Northwestern in 1976, where he continued to direct for Northwestern’s University Theatre.

At Northwestern, Coakley taught theatre history, interpretation, stage directing, theory, criticism, and the development of dramatic art. He developed several courses on the works of Shakespeare. He guided student research and dissertations as the coordinator of graduate studies from 1972 to 1980. He retired in 2005.

“Professor James Coakley opened the door for me to the profound artistic possibilities of dramatic literature,” said Harry Lennix (C86), a former student of Coakley’s and now an actor from such works as the Matrix trilogy, Man of Steel, Ray, and NBC’s The Blacklist. “He managed to do this by insisting upon intellectual rigor, and by encouraging a tenacious emotional curiosity. I will dearly miss this this magnificent teacher, but he will forever remain with me and his legions of pupils.”

Coakley was a member of many theatre-related organizations, including the American Educational Theatre Association, the Speech Association of America, the American National Theatre and Academy, and the Shaw Society.

“James Coakley devoted himself to the study and appreciation of theatre,” said associate professor of theatre Harvey Young. “It was his life’s passion. He was somewhat eccentric but always kindhearted, extraordinarily generous with his time, and a professor whose lessons burned themselves into student’s memories. It was a privilege for me to work alongside him.”