Dr. William Couch, Jr, distinguished African American academic, musician and military officer, died at the age of 101 on May 6, 2016 in Weston, Florida. He was a prominent African American who lived an extraordinary life that touched many people around the globe.
He was born one of five children in Morganville, Kentucky on December 7, 1914. His father was an orphan adopted by a White dentist in Indiana shortly before the turn of the 19th century. When Dr. Couch was about three years old, his father lost his business and the family moved to Chicago.
In Chicago, Dr. Couch was a musical prodigy whose conspicuous intellect attracted the attention of Inez Cunningham Stark, a wealthy Chicagoan who discovered the Pulitzer Prize poet (and friend of Dr. Couch), Gwendolyn Brooks. Cunningham created a stir in Dr. Couch's south Chicago neighborhood when she picked him up at his home in her private limousine to introduce him to her poetry circles.
Dr. Couch became a professional jazz musician in his teens and was befriended by Louis Armstrong, who invited him and his trumpet to play at several leading Chicago jazz clubs. Dr. Couch was studying music at Roosevelt College (now university) but took a break to pursue music professionally when Nat King Cole hired him to play in his band. During his time in the music business he met many famous black musicians and performers including Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Dorothy Donegan and his first wife Lillian Cowan, who is perhaps best known for performing on Broadway in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
After Dr. Couch and Ms. Cowan were married, he completed his B.A. degree at Roosevelt. Their marriage ended when Dr. Couch joined the Army soon after his 27th birthday on December 7, 1941.
Dr. Couch graduated from Officer Candidate School and became one of the first black combat infantry officers in the nation’s history, eventually commanding a military police battalion on Iwo Jima.
After the war, Dr Couch lived in New York where he participated in its literary circles and became a best friend of Ralph Ellison.
Dr. Couch was offered a teaching position at a prestigious white northern college but its president rescinded the offer because he suspected Dr. Couch was dating a White woman. From 1948-51 he taught English at Jackson State Teachers College in Mississippi and soon after, entered the University of Chicago's doctoral program in English literature on a Rockefeller fellowship.
After Dr. Couch received his Ph.D., in 1953 he was appointed to the Literature and Languages department at Reed College in Portland, Ore., where he became the school’s first African American faculty member. Reed recruited him only because he insisted that the University of Chicago send his resume to other than Black colleges. That resume, evidently, did not identify him as African American, which may explain the surprise of some of his new colleagues when he arrived for his first faculty meeting. When Dr. Couch left Reed, president Frank Loxely Griffin presented him with his own University of Chicago Ph.D hood.
He was influenced to leave by a representative of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C..who visited Portland to recruit him and suggested he could make a more important contribution to society teaching Black kids in the South than White kids at an elite college in the North.
In fact, Dr. Couch spent the rest of his pioneering 40-year academic career at historically Black colleges and universities, including West Virginia State College, Jackson State College, Bennett College, Southern University, North Carolina Central University, Federal City College (now the University of the District of Columbia), Howard University, and Bowie State. He was a senior administrator at Federal City College where he co-founded the Lorton Prison College Program with his distinguished colleague Dr. Andress Taylor.
During his academic career, Dr. Couch published scholarly articles and an important book, New Black Playwrights, An Anthology (Louisiana State University Press, 1968) which he dedicated to W.E.B. DuBois.
He married Ola Criss, D.Ed, who soon began a 20 year career in the State Department. Dr. Couch accompanied her on assignments to US embassies and consulates in Lagos, Nigeria, Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador, Accra, Ghana, and Georgetown, Guyana.
In those countries, Dr. Couch became a major contributor to their art and education communities and benefactor to numerous students seeking higher education.
At the end of 2010, Dr. Criss retired from the State Department and she, Dr. Couch and Kenny, the son they adopted in Ghana, moved to Weston, Florida. His wife Dr. Ola Criss, sons Kenny Criss-Couch of Weston and William Noel Edlin, Esq., of Berkeley, CA, nephews Riccardo Couch and Dr. Giancarlo Couch of Viterbo, Italy, niece Dr. Clarissa Couch and nephews Karl Couch and James Couch, Jr., Esq. of Chicago, and grandchildren Joshua Edlin, Alexandra Edlin and Quinn Edlin of Berkeley survive Dr. Couch.
Dr. Couch lived an extraordinary life. With his intellect, true grit and dashing appearance, he challenged the pervasive racism that still haunts our country to become a successful musician, military officer and academic. He set a shining example for the African American community and his family, many of whom have built distinguished professional careers. He was a wonderful father, loving husband and uncle.