When Jan Coggeshall was elected in 1984, she made history by becoming the first woman mayor in the island’s 145-year history.

For some, such an accomplishment would be the capstone of a career of service. For Coggeshall, it was, in a way, the beginning.

Coggeshall died Monday morning. The cause of death was cancer. She was 81.

Born in New York state in 1935, she grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, earning a degree in mathematics, before moving to Galveston in the 1970s with her family. Her husband, Richard, was a surgeon at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Coggeshall quickly became involved in local groups, including the League of Women Voters. In 1974 she was among the subjects of an article in The Daily News headlined “Women Taking Leader Roles,” because of her position as chairwoman of the Design of the City Committee.

She was first elected to the Galveston City Council in 1979. She was only the second woman elected to the council. Ruth Kempner, a member of the distinguished Galveston family, broke the barrier in 1960.

Coggeshall was elected mayor in 1984 when she was chosen by voters to finish the term left unfinished by the death of Mayor Gus Manuel. She defeated Doug McLeod, a former state representative.

Coggeshall was part of a wave of women mayors elected in the 1980s, joining the likes of Kathryn Whitmire in Houston and Annette Strauss in Dallas. In a New York Times article about the small club she was described as a “determined, enthusiastic, an unflagging cheerleader for Galveston.”

During her tenure as mayor, Coggeshall helped oversee the city’s recovery from Hurricane Alicia, and from the Alvenus oil spill, which left tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil on seawall beaches after the ship ran aground off the coast of Louisiana. Galveston still had a growing population in the 1980s, approaching 70,000 people. But, like the rest of Texas, it was facing challenges caused by the bust of the oil industry.

In 1987, Coggeshall was one of the targets of the city’s first recall election, caused by public outrage over the expansion of the city’s trolley line. She survived, as did the rest of the council.

Coggeshall resigned in 1989 to pursue an ultimately unsuccessful bid for county commissioner.

Barbara Crews, who immediately followed as Galveston’s mayor, said Coggeshall would “forever be remembered for her courage” to run as the first woman mayor of Galveston.

“Jan was dedicated to improving the quality of life in Galveston for its residents,” Crews said. “She worked tirelessly to promote historic preservation, strong neighborhoods, tourism and hurricane preparedness.”

While her bid for county office was the end of her political office, it did not end her participation in public life.

Over the past 25 years, she served on the city’s Ethics Commission, the Galveston Housing Finance Corporation, the Arts and Historic Preservation Advisory Board and the Election Recount Committee. She participated on Mayor Henry Freudenburg’s Tourism Roundtable and was involved in the city’s program to promote relations with its sister city of Niigata, Japan. She was a president of the Rosenberg Library’s board of directors and was often seen at city hall to observe and participate in discussions about a variety of topics.

“Jan was a stalwart supporter of all things Galveston,” Mayor Jim Yabrough said in a statement. “Ahead of her time, her passion for historic preservation and redeveloping the island made lasting impacts on our community. She was a good friend, and although she couldn’t claim to be a BOI, she has spent the last 40 years making it better than it was when she found it.”

Coggeshall helped found the Galveston College Foundation and spearheaded its creation of Galveston College’s Universal Access 21st Century Scholarship. Since 2001, the program has provided two-year tuition scholarships to more than 1,500 Galveston students and raised $8.4 million for its endowment fund.

“She was a wonderful person,” said Roland Bassett, who founded the Galveston College Foundation with Coggeshall. “Everything that was for the good of the community was important to Jan.”

Despite her illness, Coggeshall was active on the college’s board until as recently as May, Bassett said.

A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, 1903 Church St.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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(7) comments

Carolyn Sunseri

Jan Coggeshall was a very well respected leader in our community. The City of Galveston has lost a true icon.

Melvin Williams

Jan was the epitome of a realistic optimist. A true humanitarian that will be missed throughout the city of Galveston. Someone who cared dearly about her fellow citizens of this world, a friend to most, especially those who had the opportunity to interact with her. Jan RIP, you have earned it.

Dan Freeman

We are all diminished by her loss. Perhaps we can live up to her ideals.

Michael Guarino

She was a great lady who was smart, courteous and passionate in her beliefs. She loved Galveston and always worked to make it a better place to live and work. We have lost another Galveston icon.

joe huff

Jan was a gracious leader in city government, good causes and forward thinking. Her time with the Galveston College Foundation was inspiring. She, aware of my background in Virginia, appointed me to the Galveston Housing Authority as a Commissioner in 1987. The conventional public housing residents that I met during that time would often tell stories about a "Mayor Jan" who brought their babies milk and their children food and clothes. May her soul be blessed as she blessed Galveston and others.

Mason Schraufnagel

Jan did accomplish everything noted in the article but it should also be said that she had a tremendous 20+ year career at Merrill Lynch in Galveston. She helped improve the lives of hundreds of clients and helped build the office we have today. Jan will be missed.

WisestMan InAthens

Jan was always sincere and kind with me. She was extremely honest and principled... a woman of integrity and vision.

I was still working for First Presbyterian of Galveston when she became Mayor. She asked me to give the Invocation for her swearing into office as the Mayor of Galveston. If I remember, Rev. Jack Bennett and Rev. Bill Carr had left First Presbyterian already...and I was the closest thing to family clergy at the time! Lol. I do remember being quite nervous.

I don't have a copy of the invocation. I think I wrote it freehand. I do remember Jan asking if she could have my copy and my giving it to her. It was an honor to do so.

Jan believed in God...and is in His presence. I am glad for my times with her.

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