Amherst Magazine

Jonathan D. Cohen ’91

Jonathan D. Cohen ’91 died April 27, 2010.
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Jonathan Daniel Cohen

Temple Emanuel

Andover, Massachusetts

 April 29, 2010

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to briefly speak to you about our close friend, Jon - affectionately known to his band of brothers as “Cohie.”   It is a daunting task to try to describe in any detail here the enormity of the loss associated with Jon’s passing for his family and for the people who called Jon their friend.   I can only scratch the surface in describing Jon.  He was an exceptional friend, husband and parent.   And there is a room full of people here who feel his loss acutely.  Many are the reasons why. 

[HUMOR]

Jon was once asked what it is like growing up Jewish.  Jon responded, “It is pretty stressful, the food is not so great, but the money is terrific.” 

Jon was funny - very funny. His sense of humor was intelligent and sharp - and I do mean sharp.  Sometimes sarcastic, sometimes self-deprecating, always succinct, always to the point and always entertaining, his quips could cut right to the heart of a matter being discussed with surgical precision.  He could use it to bring perspective to a situation, to put someone in their place or to bring much needed levity to an all-too-serious moment.   In many instances, aided by his gifted writing skills, he used e-mail to showcase his sense of humor. I’ve kept a file of my favorite Cohie emails.  To protect from embarrassment the targets of his missives, many of whom are seated (and at least one standing) here today, I’ve decided not to release those emails.  I can tell you it was usually Cohie’s email that ended any given chain of discussion.  He was impossible to follow.   It is not difficult to see why he was so successful as a lawyer.   

Some people mistook Jon for being quiet or reserved.  There was a side of Jon those people had not seen.  He had a playful spirit.  Cohie’s freshman year dormmates, Dan Burke and Jeff Greenholtz, recount Cohie’s proficiency at a three and a half minute perfectly-choreographed dance routine to the theme song from the TV show Hawaii 5-0, which Cohie performed in the dorm’s hallway to the amusement of all.  I did not experience this first-hand but I understand the routine included some sort of make-shift hula skirt and lots of rowing motions.  This was not an isolated incident.  We traveled to Hawaii for Dan & Kim Burke’s wedding several years ago. The Japanese restaurant at the hotel where we were staying featured a Karaoke bar.  When we arrived at the hotel, the bar was packed with people – mostly, Japanese tourists.  It did not take much coaxing for Cohie and another friend of ours to get up to sing.  As I recall, our other friend was a member of one of Amherst’s a capella singing groups and was quite a good singer.  The song was Dean Martin’s “Your Nobody till Somebody Loves You.”  I think the idea was that both were to share one microphone – a duet of sorts.  A few seconds into the song it was apparent to us – and to Cohie – that his singing partner was not giving the song the requisite amount of enthusiasm.  Cohie tore the microphone out of his hand and began roaming the room signing.  He didn’t need to look at the video monitor.  He knew the lyrics cold.  He walked from table to table smiling and gesturing to each of the people sitting there like a lounge singer from Vegas.   When he finished, the Japanese tourists rose in unison and gave him a roaring standing ovation.   

Incidentally, he can also sing a version of “Danny Boy” that can make Sean Foley cry. 

 hile his theatrical and musical acumen may be a surprise for many of you, it comes as no surprise to his immediately family, specifically, his children.  Cohie’s list of lullabies include songs by Johnny Cash, Springsteen and Sinatra.   These children have had an early introduction to the classics. 

[HONOR]

Jon was a man of principle and honor - values no doubt instilled in him by his parents, Edith, Charlie, and Arlene, and as he would say, by growing up on the “streets” of Longmeadow, Massachusetts. (This would normally be the time where Cohie would remind me that people from Worcester really shouldn’t poke fun of other cities.)  He loved being from western Massachusetts, where he learned from his hero, his dad, to adhere to an uncompromising work ethic and principled approach to life, which he carried through Deerfield Academy, Amherst College and Georgetown Law, all with great success.  He believed there was a right way and a wrong way to do things.  Cohie could distinguish between the two without difficulty.

In his first year of law school, Cohie drove an old Ford Tempo, which was on its last legs.  After it became clear that he needed to buy a new car, he called his dad for advice.  His dad recommended some reliable cars for Cohie to buy.  Cohie then asked his dad whether he thought he should sell the Tempo.  His dad replied that he didn’t think the car was worth much and that he should just junk it.  Cohie took this as a challenge.  He listed the car in the classified ads of the local newspaper for $2,000, thinking he’d leave room for negotiation.  If someone agreed to give him $1,000, he’d gladly accept.  It did not take long for a young couple to call him and ask if they could see the car.  Cohie was elated.  He drove to their house.   The couple quickly looked over the car and took it for a test drive.  It was readily apparent that the couple knew little, if anything, about cars and also did not know what Cohie knew: that if they hoped to drive the car for any extended period of time, it would need some work.  After completing the test drive, they told Cohie they’d buy the car for the asking price -- $2,000.  They drove to the ATM, withdrew $2,000 in cash and handed it to Cohie.  They then offered Cohie a ride back to his apartment.  So, there was Cohie, sitting in the back seat of the Tempo, with $2,000 in his pocket, as the nice young couple drove him back to his apartment.  By the time they arrived, Cohie got out of the Tempo, leaned into the driver’s window and handed the couple half the money in his pocket.  “Here is $1,000 back,” he said.  “I know this car needs at least $500 of work to fix the engine.  I’m giving you $1,000 in case somebody charges you more than that to fix it.”   The couple must have been stunned.

He reluctantly told his dad that story, believing his dad would tease him for giving the money back.  He didn’t.  Charlie Cohen simply replied, “of course you gave that money back.”  Cohie had been taught well. 

[SPIRIT]

A fighting spirit pervaded Jon’s life - no more evident that in these last few years.   As many here know, he could quote Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s day speech line by line when the occasion called for it.  (“We few, we happy few we band of brothers.  For he today that shed his blood with me shall be my brother”).    As many of you know, Jon successfully battled ocular cancer 10 years ago, but lost his left eye in the process.  At the time, many of his friends had heard about his situation but had not heard from him.  Days later, he updated a group of his close friends via email.    

“I understand there has been concern expressed about my condition and my recent procedure.

I’m reminded of the following words of Prince Hal, regarding his own transformation.  As you may know, Prince Hal’s words proved prescient when he later prevailed over the French at Agincourt. 

“I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work.””

 He was reassuring us in a way only Cohie could.  He had broken through the foul and ugly mists and was again himself.  He had endured what anyone would consider a traumatic and life-changing experience - let alone someone whose living depended on reading and who was as active as Cohie.  Nonetheless, with barely an acknowledgement of the gravity or even the unfairness of his plight, he resumed his life with vigor and joy.  He returned to work.  He played tennis, he golfed, he swam, he threw the football around, all while making adjustments for his reduced depth perception.  Although he continued for the next year to take medication that he much later acknowledged made him feel like he had the flu every day, he never – not once - complained about his situation.  Not once! 

In the last few months, as he battled the return of the cancer, he continued to display that same tenacity and resolve.  I am sure there were moments when his resolve was tested and where he expressed his doubts and understandable anger but through it all he consistently showed remarkable courage, grace and dignity in fighting a disease that strips those things away from most people.  Cancer could not take that from him. 

[FAMILY]

No doubt the main source of Jon’s great strength was his remarkable family: his sisters, brothers and perhaps most of all, his wife, Suzanne.  Suzanne, he loved you like no other and there is no underestimating your transformative influence on him during the last five years.  His nurturing and caring side emerged most clearly in your presence.   Even during his treatments, in his moments of greatest discomfort, he was more concerned about you.  When asked how he was doing, he would reply, “I am fine.  I worry about Suzanne. It is tough on her.”  During the last few months and weeks we’ve been awed by the depth of your strength, optimism, and sense of hope upon which we all drew.  You are an incredibly strong and inspirational woman.  Thank you for the care, compassion and love you provided Jon. 

 Aside from marrying exceedingly well, Jon greatest accomplishment is his three beautiful children.   You need only hear the pitch of his voice rise up several octaves when he played with Charlie, Nathanial and Mia to recognize just how much joy he derived from being their parent.   He got such a kick out of them all.  I would receive periodic updates from him as the kids grew older.  I love this one the most:

“Charlie has started calling me “Jon” from time to time.  Like “Jon, let me in your room” or “Hey Jon, whatcha doin?”  I sort of like it and don’t correct him.  Reminds me of the Brady episode where Greg starts calling his parents Mike and Carol.”

 We have lost a great friend – our brother.  It is very difficult to accept.  But, I take great comfort in the thought of Jon now with his mom and his dad.  And I look in the faces of Mia, Nathanial and Charlie and I see Jon quite clearly.  I take the same measure of comfort in knowing that his legacy lives on in them.  I know those of us who loved Cohie will watch them grow with great interest, support and love, always ready on a moment’s notice to provide a story about their father.  And when they are old enough, I may even show them a few of his emails.

 I did not get a chance to say goodbye to Cohie before he passed.  He probably would have preferred it that way.  But, I am grateful for the opportunity to say goodbye to him now.  I think of the lyrics from Danny Boy, as Cohie sang them so well:

“And I shall hear tho soft you tread above me.

And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be.

If you’ll not fail to tell me you love me.

I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.”

 

Sleep in peace, Cohie – our brother.  We do love you so. 

John E. Keenan III '92

 

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