In Memoriam: Don Coonley, Media Professor and Emmy winner

News Story: June 1, 2011
Don Coonley on the set of Windcrossing in 1980.

Donald E. Coonley, of New London, New Hampshire, died on Wednesday, June 8, from complications of endocarditis. Coonley, a writer, producer and Professor Emeritus of Colby-Sawyer College, was 68. He is survived by his wife Nancy Serrell Coonley, Director of Outreach at Dartmouth College; a daughter, Whitney Serrell Barbera and her husband Steve of Katonah, NY; a son, David Serrell and his wife Hope, of Draper, Utah; and five grandchildren. He was predeceased by his parents, J. Dale and Zelma Coonley of Deland, FL, and a sister and brother-in-law, Mary Dale and Gary Moore also of Deland.
A Nebraska native, Coonley was born in Grand Island on Sept. 6, 1942, grew up in Beatrice, and attended school in Genoa, where his father was school superintendent and his mother taught English. The family later moved to Deland, FL. He earned his BA degree from Stetson University in 1964, his MA from the University of South Florida in 1969, and his Doctorate of Arts from the University of Michigan in 1973.
Over five decades as an educator Coonley touched the lives of thousands of students. A writer and filmmaker, his creative projects were most often collaborative, engaging students and community members in exploring local history or issues.
As Professor of Media Studies and founder of the Media Studies Program at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT (1973-1989) he was the co-producer of Searching for Wordin Avenue, a docudrama about the vanished Hungarian community of Bridgeport, CT. The film won the national CINE Golden Eagle award. He also wrote and produced a theatrical play, Windcrossing, inspired by a Connecticut aviation pioneer, and later co-produced the televised version, which won an Emmy Award from the New England Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and a Corporation for Public Broadcasting National Award for Best Local Drama. Both projects involved current and former students, including many who went on to careers in film and video. While at Sacred Heart, he received the Exxon Faculty Award for Excellence and the Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence. The College’s Media Studies Department established an annual Don Coonley Award for students who exemplify Coonley’s “commitment to excellence in the art, theory, and practice of communication.”
As Professor of Humanities and Communication Studies at Colby-Sawyer College (1989 - 2008), he developed a video production program grounded in the liberal arts with a strong public service focus and launched a community radio station, WSCS-FM. During his tenure at Colby-Sawyer, he guided students in producing more than 60 community service video projects. His commitment to students and to education was again recognized in 1992, when he received the Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence; and in 1994 when he received the Jack Jensen Award for Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership. 

Don Coonley working
on a recent project.

Coonley wrote, produced, and directed Purdy's Station, an original drama about a Connecticut schoolteacher and the underground railroad. The film received a Bronze Apple from the National Education Film & Video Festival, and two regional Emmy nominations. He also created video sequences for Celestial Reckoning, a multimedia stage play he authored and produced at Colby-Sawyer in 1999 that highlighted life during World War II at a women’s junior college. The production included 75 students, faculty, staff and area residents.
In his final project, “Winslow Homer: Society and Solitude,” Coonley was associate producer as well as the on-screen and voice-over actor portraying the great American painter. The film, which premiered in 2007, was part of a 30-year collaboration with the film’s director, Steve Ross, a professor at the University of Memphis.
Coonley was an accomplished writer, sound designer, and still photographer, who valued the power of the written word and of both aural and visual images. He was also an avid tennis player and runner and enjoyed all outdoor pursuits, especially kayaking, canoeing, and hiking.
A memorial service and celebration of his life will take place at 2 p.m. on July 9 at Colby-Sawyer College, and a second memorial gathering is planned for September in Connecticut. For details about the memorial in Connecticut as they develop, contact Sid Gottlieb at gottliebs@sacredheart.edu.

Donations can be made in Don's name to the Ausbon Sargent Land Preservation Trust, the Nature Conservancy or Doctors Without Borders.