Goodness in a troubled world

What’s the measure of a great man? The length of his obituary in The New York Times, if he’s prominent enough to make the Times? The awards and honors he has accumulated on his vita, however exaggerated? Or perhaps what prestigious men say about him in their eulogies? Is that the measure of greatness?

I’ve known allegedly great men who were tyrants, philanderers and crooks. At the end of their lives when you scratched the surface, the gold plate that concealed their misdeeds came off easily, and they were still tyrants, philanderers and crooks — regardless of what others said at their funerals … and what was written about them.

I’ve known government leaders and legislators responsible for laws that changed society, usually for the worse. And I’ve known people who did many charitable deeds but generally did them for little more than self-aggrandizement or notoriety.

I can count on one hand the men who to me were great — and they were measured by a different standard from the world’s.

Ed Coyne of Milford, who recently died at 84, was one of them. He was a humble man who belonged to one of the world’s most exclusive clubs, exclusive because you pay with your life to get in.

He was proud of that membership and wasn’t shy about telling people he was a recovering alcoholic, and in his vocation as a priest, he brought sobriety and hope to more people than we’ll ever know in this lifetime.

He believed what you got as a gift, you gave away as a gift. Yes, you had to share it, and he shared it in countless ways.

He liked to say that he wasn’t all here because he wasn’t all there — I still don’t understand what that means but wherever he is now, I’m sure it’s a good place.

He had a thousand colorful descriptions for his life in sobriety, and he helped others find hope in the midst of despair. He also helped them find their way back to their “Higher Power,” as Ed described him.

During his 51 years as a priest, he was known for bringing lofty theological principles down to a level everyone could understand, and after Sunday services, he always offered the congregation a commentary on the week’s “coming attractions,” which might include the UConn women’s basketball playoffs, a New York Yankees double-header or the feast of St. Joseph.

To me, Ed was a combination of colorful characters like James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Warren Buffett — without the assets.

He was always a spiritual teacher. He was always an entertainer. And he was always — as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous — a power of example.

After a career in corporate America and the military, Edwin Coyne was ordained from St. James Church in Stratford, and over the next five decades, his religious vocation took him to the prisons, the Peru missions, a storefront church in Father Panik Village in Bridgeport, a ministry to Hispanics, inner-city parishes, the poorest neighborhoods of Connecticut, St. Joseph High School in Trumbull and rooms filled with addicts and alcoholics, where he brought compassion and hope, along with his characteristic self-effacing humor.

A lot of souls are saved when we least expect it, and Ed did his share of work, especially with men and women crippled spiritually and emotionally because of their addictions.

Toward the end of his life, he endured his own share of suffering from poor health, but no matter how he felt, he never complained. In his last months, he suffered from kidney problems because of diabetes and cancer, and had to have regular dialysis and chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Even those setbacks didn’t stop him.

I consider myself a better person for knowing Ed Coyne, a man of integrity, compassion and virtue.

He was a constant reminder there’s still goodness out there in a troubled world and that ultimately love endures. He touched thousands of people, and those encounters changed their lives for the better. As his nephew, Jim Ritchetelli, former mayor of Milford, said in his eulogy: “He made the world a better place.”

And that is certainly a true measure of greatness.

Joe Pisani can be reached at