When Sean Couch’s grandfather passed away, he knew his life would never be the same. In that moment of grief, however, there was no way he could have known just how much his path would shift from that day on.
Jesse Couch was 94 when he died in 2015. For Sean’s 29 years of life, his grandfather had raised him like a son. Sean and his mother lived a few blocks away from his grandparents. With his own father out of the picture, Jesse stepped up. They had countless dinners together and went on trips as a family. Sean spent his weekends with Jesse and his grandmother, Toddy. They were very close.
Jesse, though not a big man, loomed large in stature. He could be intimidating. Sean remembers the well-trod path to his study, down a long, quiet corridor in his grandparent’s modest ranch-style home outside Houston. The study was filled with stacks of books. His grandfather, a Princeton political science graduate, was well-read, always studying and learning. Every morning he started his day reading his Bible. Jesse was a pilot during World War II, and he maintained a love of flight all his life. In conversations in the study, Jesse would sit in his chair and listen. He was quiet and expressionless, sometimes for long stretches, and then confident, commanding, and often profound in his response.
While his grandfather studied his books, Sean took to studying him. Jesse didn’t speak much about his personal life. By reviewing his scrapbooks and photo albums and watching his grandfather’s actions, Sean began to piece together a rich story of a stoic man who was also incredibly thoughtful, passionate, and a dreamer. He played golf and was a member of the gun club, but he also wrote poetry and gave his time to art museums, animal shelters, and the Houston Arboretum. He had overcome some of life’s toughest struggles, including losing a son to suicide. Still, as a grandfather, he found himself able to be a strong, reliable presence in Sean’s sometimes chaotic childhood.
Jesse offered guidance and helped Sean get through college, spending money that Sean had never seen. Jesse always drove used cars and didn’t flaunt any apparent wealth. When Sean’s mother needed assistance, Jesse assured Sean he had a plan and not to worry.
Jesse watched Sean grow, study marketing and digital media management, and join tech start-ups in Austin, where his entrepreneurial spirit really came alive. Sean married, and when Jesse died, Sean and his wife were expecting their first child.
Sean attended Jesse’s funeral services. The family grieved. Sean felt a hole open in his life.
And then they received his will.
Along with taking care of various affairs, Jesse entrusted Sean with a multi-million-dollar charitable foundation, a foundation Sean had no idea even existed.
“Suddenly, it felt like all the skills that I had learned in life had really prepared me for this,” said Sean.
“It was very serendipitous, and that’s kind of how my life has been. Everything happens for a reason. I’m very much about fate and God’s plan. You make the plan, but you really have no idea what’s going to happen next.”
Today, the J.W. Couch Foundation (www.jwcouchfoundation.org) gives out about $2.5 million a year to various projects focusing on education, preservation, and wellness, three causes Jesse was passionate about. Sean and his wife now have four children. Two years ago, the family relocated from Texas to the 30A area in the panhandle of Florida.
The foundation has supported a wide range of groups over the years. One highlight includes being an early backer of the Center for Humane Technology, a non-profit focused on reducing screen time and fighting the ill-effects of social media. The group has gone on to do extensive work, including producing the documentary film The Social Dilemma.
Last year, the foundation backed the Farmlink Project, which was started by a few college students who couldn’t go to school during the pandemic. They began cold-calling farmers who had produce that would otherwise have been thrown away and had that produce directly delivered to food banks.
This was the first effort through JW Studios, a new arm of the foundation that produces and funds high-quality videos for nonprofits. The groups can use the videos for messaging or fundraising, whatever they need. “I wanted to do more than just write grants,” Sean said. “This is something that can have a much longer shelf life.”
Today the Farmlink Project is an official non-profit based in Los Angeles, and the students were awarded the Medal of Honor for their work.
Sean has also begun to direct funds into preservation efforts near their new home, including backing the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance, Scenic Walton, and the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center. One of their most ambitious projects to date is The Paper Bear, a full-length feature film slated for release late 2022. The film aims to entertain while also highlighting the importance of preserving the natural resources around the 30A area while development is proceeding at a rapid clip.
The foundation has changed Sean’s life, and not only in that he is applying his skills to a new industry. The work itself is rich and rewarding in a way Sean hadn’t experienced before. The foundation helps others but also elevates Sean’s own life experiences. He said he often laughs, thinking about how his grandfather must have known what was in store for him while he had no idea all along.
“It’s not lost on me how lucky I am to have this opportunity,” Sean said. “Every day the work continues to give me a lesson on life—how to be more empathetic, more passionate, and a better listener.”
His grandfather’s legacy carries on.