A Gift For Myself

By Dave Coulter
Originally printed 9/19/2013 (Issue 2138 - Between The Lines News)


As a thirty-one year old man focused on my own success - with a great corporate job, wonderful friends and family and a passion for politics - I saw the road ahead as paved with promise and possibilities. Then my best friend killed himself.

Nothing prepares you for suicide. There may be other life events that are as crippling, but fortunately I have not yet discovered one. It's the kind of tragedy that instantly delineates one phase of your life from another, as if your innocence and all the years up to that point are somehow also killed.

But this isn't a story about death, or even about my friend, Michael LaGatella. I'll simply say about Michael that he was more full of life than any person I had ever known, and at twenty-four years old he was finally overcoming a difficult childhood. He was excited to be enrolled at Wayne State, and he had found a partner he deeply loved.

Michael didn't share with us the reason why he did what he did, but his family and friends were left to share something that would live with us forever, and in our own ways we gradually began to search for some meaning to it all.

I'm not sure who had the original idea to create a scholarship for Michael. It may have been his partner, Mike Laber, or his partner's friends John Burchett or Tim Mahoney, or maybe even me. But one of us did, and we all instinctively knew it just felt right.

So we poured our grief into creating something in his name that would last. We learned that if we raised $10,000 at Wayne State we could endow a scholarship that would award $500 a year forever. That was the beginning of the Michael P. LaGatella Memorial Scholarship, the first ever in Michigan for LGBT and supportive students.

It took nearly two years to raise the funds, but we did it. The four of us then became the committee to review applications, and for the next several years we would meet to evaluate the candidates. I was always inspired to read the stories of so many promising students, and I couldn't help noticing their similarities with Michael.

Some were very accomplished, and some were struggling to find their way (like Michael), but taken together they revealed a diverse mosaic of the best in our community. Granting scholarships helped turn our sorrow into joy in a most unexpected way.

That was twenty years ago, and time has been very good for our scholarship. Additional fundraising and a healthy stock market helped the endowment grow to more than $100,000, and this October I'm proud we'll be granting $6,600 to five unique and deserving Wayne State students.

I also know this: working on the scholarship and building something to help students fulfill their dreams was exactly what I needed to work through my loss. Even in a culture obsessed with how much we can get, I've learned that giving is a gift you give to yourself. The scholarships are, in a very real sense, also for me.

Today, I've been fortunate to live out my youthful dream of being in politics, but with a deeper appreciation for the meaning of public service and giving back. Whatever you go through, being of service to someone or something beyond yourself is a reward for you, too.

Dave Coulter is the mayor of Ferndale, MI. For more information about the Michael P. LaGatella Memorial Scholarship, contact the Wayne State University Office of Student Financial Aid at 313-577-2100 or email them at studentservice@wayne.edu.
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