The phrase “gone but not forgotten” may seem trite in describing the death of a person who left a major mark on the world, but one look at the numerous online tributes to Ed Cohen proves how appropriate the sentiment is.
“Every word of it is true,” said Mike Schneider, former Camps Airy & Louise executive director, who worked under Cohen as a counselor and associate director. “Everyone who walked into those camps knew what he was all about from the very start. His energy, his enthusiasm, his concern; all of those things just made him stand out.”
Cohen passed away on June 21. He was 87.
Friends, family and colleagues remember him as a dedicated teacher, mentor and friend with an infectious smile and a great sense of humor. In posts to Cohen’s Facebook wall, former campers said he helped boys become men, taught them about leadership and respect and made camp feel like one big family.
“How, even in a short time, he affected their lives in such a dramatic way, it says a lot about the nature of his heart,” his son, Harry Cohen, said.
Cohen grew up in southwest Baltimore. He attended Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a dual master’s degree in English and education. He spent 20 years in Baltimore City Public Schools as an English teacher, vice principal and then principal. At the same time, he taught Hebrew school at Har Sinai Congregation, where he later became principal. Throughout his life, it was typical for him to work multiple jobs at a time.
“The man was always busy. He had a tremendous amount of energy,” Har Sinai’s rabbi emeritus, Floyd Herman, said. “He was a great influence on a lot of people, including me.”
When he left city schools, he worked on a program called Project Mission, a federally funded program that trained teachers to teach in the inner city, Harry Cohen said.
He taught elementary education at Towson University from 1979 to 1984. While working his various jobs, which also included as a salesperson at Hecht. Co, a travel agent and Broadway bus tour guide, he wrote two books, “Open-Ended Stories” and “Open-Ended Plays.” The books, written with lifelong friend Manny Velder, help students write creatively by allowing them to write their own endings.
Cohen’s impact was felt by generations of campers at Camp Airy, one of his longest running employers. Cohen, once a camper at Airy, started as junior camp director in 1968 and retired as executive director of Camps Airy & Louise in 1997.
Schneider, who called Cohen a mentor, friend and father figure, was director of Camp Milldale when he got a call to go back to Airy, where he previously worked as a counselor.
“Ed said to me, ‘How you would like to come home to the mountains?’ and there was no hesitation,” said Schneider, who now works as community outreach liaison for Baltimore County Recreation and Parks. “As much as I loved Milldale, working up there with Ed and [former executive director Sid] Chernak was like a dream come true.”
Schneider noted that Cohen turned the camp into one that all kids could enjoy. Prior to his direction, he said, it was mainly a sports camp, but the introduction of new programs such as art and music gave more campers opportunities to flourish.
Rick Frankle, the current director of Camp Airy, attended Thursday’s funeral and said it would have touched Cohen’s heart to see the generations of campers that his passing brought back together. Cohen was a friend to many outside of camp, attending various bar and bat mitzvahs of those connected to him through camp. Frankle recalls bumping into Cohen in New York City a few months ago and Cohen remembering Frankle’s son and striking up a conversation with him.
“[He] was invested in our lives, and not just our camp lives,” Frankle said.
Keith Dvorchik, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, said Cohen gave camp a warm, welcoming feeling and was always hanging out at bunks or walking around, never seeming inaccessible. Dvorchik started at Camp Airy in 1979 as an 11-year-old, and stayed there through 1986, spending his last two summers as a counselor.
Like many others recalled in online condolences, Dvorchik said Cohen had a special way of disciplining kids.
“I think you knew that the reason you were being talked to by him was because you’d done something that you shouldn’t have and that he really wanted you to improve,” Dvorchik said. “It all came [about] because he cared about you.”
Camp Airy also affected Dvorchik’s Jewish identity in a profound way.
“Part of the lesson I got from Airy and through Ed is that while being Jewish has a religious component, there’s so much more,” he said. “That’s something I’ve carried with me even here. It’s about being a part of a larger community, not just the religious piece.”
Cohen was not only a camp director and teacher, but he was a husband and father of three. Although he always wore many professional hats, he made time for family. Fran Stuart, one of his two daughters, recalls him telling outlandish stories and making time to take each of his children on separate vacations with him.
“He’d make sure we each had time with him,” she said.
He was married to his wife, Phyllis, for almost 65 years. Together they traveled to Russia, Israel, Africa, Greece and went on several cruises, Stuart said. His dying wish was that the family take care of his wife, who has Alzheimer’s.
“He held on as he did just to be with her,” Stuart said.
Ed Cohen is survived by his wife Phyllis Cohen; his children Harry Cohen, Fran Stuart and Mindy Cohen; brother Milton Cohen; grandchildren Kim Stuart Perdue, Geoff Stuart, Kirk Cohen-Mayo, Ilana Cohen and Shelby Cohen; and great-grandson Tyler Stuart Perdue.