Attorney, community leader, Donald Cohn dies at 84


Donald Cohn, who died of a heart attack on Aug. 12 at the age of 84, was a man of deep integrity. An attorney by profession, he was a born teacher. He connected with people at an emotional level and understood what it means to respond to the call of service. In addition, he loved to fish. 

He spent much of his childhood in Amityville, N.Y., where he fell in love with boating and fishing on South Oyster Bay. Just a few days before he died, he was on his boat off the shore of Long Island.

Don enjoyed life, but he never shirked his responsibilities as a citizen, a husband, a father, son and brother. His willingness to take responsibility and to connect with people is illustrated by a simple story. While travelling on the subway with one of his children, he met a homeless person who was agitated. He said, “That person just needs attention,” and he quietly talked to the man until he calmed down.

It didn’t matter who you were. If you were in Don’s line of sight then you mattered, you were worthy of attention.

Don’s father died when he was young, so his brother, Zanvil, a brilliant cell biologist, was a major influence on him. Throughout his life, Don formed deep friendships and stepped-up when the need arose.

Born in New York City in 1929, he studied at PS 3 and then Columbia Grammar School. He went on to be the first student from Columbia Grammar to go to Princeton University, where he was a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He played football for Princeton and proudly remembered that his team beat Harvard and Yale all three years he played.

At Princeton, the Jewish community was small with no place of its own on campus, so Don became one of the founders of the university’s Hillel Society. He headed the UJA Federation campaign on campus where he was honored to bring Albert Einstein to speak.

When Don graduated, he considered becoming a history professor. However, he wanted an active life in the rough and tumble world outside academia, so he decided to continue his education at Yale Law School. He became an editor of the Law Journal, but the Korean War interrupted his studies.  During this time he served as a Lieutenant in the US Coast Guard before returning to school.

As a lawyer, he joined the firm of Webster & Sheffield, where he eventually rose to the position of Senior Partner and Head of the Litigation Department. 

Ironically, though Don chose not to be a professor, at Webster and Sheffield he took on the role of mentor to a generation of young lawyers. Gender, religion and race — none of these were factors that he considered in judging the people he met. 

Don understood that he held a responsibility to give back to the community at large. Over the years he served in a leadership role at the Riverdale Neighborhood House, UJA Federation, Friends of the Hebrew University, Riverdale Country School, Riverdale Nature Preservancy, the Children’s Aid Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He won many awards and honors.  However, the accolades did not motivate him. He just wanted to do his part.

As a father, Don was in uncharted territory. His own father died when he was young, but Don learned from other role models.  He believed in giving his children the tools to lead a fulfilling life and letting them decide how to use them — a fine education, an example of someone who lived according to a deep moral code.

He supported his kids, teaching Ralph, Alexandra, Charlie and Teddy they could do anything. As a Jew who found himself at Princeton in the days when there were strict quotas, Don believed that intelligence and hard work could get you far.

He told his children: “Don’t treat college as a trade school. There will be plenty of time to learn a specific profession. Learn and learn and learn and you will use what you learn wherever you go, whatever you do.” He taught them to write, to set the bar high … and, of course, to fish.

Don was a doting grandfather, interested in his grandchildren and treating teenage Benjamin and David as adults. His first gift to each of them was a fishing rod.

Donald Cohn is survived by his wife, Eva Brunner Cohn, their sons, Charles, Theodore and Ralph, and their daughter Alexandra, along with grandchildren Benjamin and David Cohn. 

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be sent to Riverdale Neighborhood House or the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale.

This article is adapted from a eulogy delivered by Rabbi Katz on Aug. 16.