FEATURE — Winter 2006
   

 
Robert A. Cohn, A.B. '61, J.D. '64, B.S. '65, B.S. '67, now president of the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis and chairman of the St. Louis County Human Rights Commission, was editor-in-chief of the St. Louis Jewish Light for 35 years.

Living in the Light

Alumnus Robert A. Cohn shares how a dual interest in law and journalism turned into a long-term editorship of the St. Louis Jewish Light.

By Candace O'Connor

So what is the evidence that Robert A. Cohn is really retired? Cohn, who spent 35 successful years as editor-in-chief of the St. Louis Jewish Light newspaper, one of the top dozen Jewish newspapers in the United States, stepped down in 2004. Yet he still has an office down the hall and an emeritus role in which he writes editorials and some news articles, designs editorial cartoons, and crafts warm, personal obituaries for St. Louis luminaries he has known. On top of that, he can't resist a host of close-to-his-heart volunteer activities.

"My joke is that when people ask me, 'So, Bob, how are you enjoying all of your free time?', I answer, 'When I get a minute, I'll tell you,'" says Cohn, who is president of the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis, chairman of the St. Louis County Human Rights Commission, and former president of Legal Advocates for Abused Women.

With his innate good humor, along with his journalistic skill and remarkable energy, he has interviewed and written about some of the leading Jewish figures of our time: Moshe Dayan, one-time Israeli defense minister; Golda Meir and Ariel Sharon, both Israeli prime ministers; and Abba Eban, the urbane diplomat, reputed to be standoffish, whom Cohn found to be "a brilliant man, very gracious and accommodating." He was on the White House lawn when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin signed their historic peace treaty in March 1979.

One of his favorite subjects, though, is a local figure: developer I.E. Millstone, B.S. '27, the only surviving member of a trio—with the late Alfred Fleishman and Melvin Dubinsky—that Cohn calls "the three patriarchs of the St. Louis Jewish community." Millstone, he says, is a visionary with an uncanny ability to predict trends, as he did in choosing a spot for the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in then-remote Creve Coeur.

"Remember the term they gave to the purchase of Alaska—Seward's Folly?" says Cohn, whose office is on what is now the Millstone Jewish Community Campus. "Well, when Mr. Millstone pushed for the purchase of these 122 acres, many said, 'No, the Jewish community lives in University City. It's too much of a schlepp out there.' But he said, 'This is where the community is going.'" The Millstone Campus is not only home to the JCC, but also to the Jewish Federation and the Covenant/Chai Apartments for the elderly.

While at Washington University, Robert Cohn served as editor of Student Life, and he also later became editor of the law school's paper, The Writ .

Over the years, Cohn has won numerous awards, including the Rockower Award for Excellence in North American Jewish Journalism and two lifetime achievement awards from the American Jewish Press Association, which Cohn has served as president. He thinks he may also hold another record: "the most sheepskin from Washington University," he says. In 1961, he received an A.B. in English, then an LL.B. in 1964 (later converted to a J.D.), and finally two more undergraduate degrees in political science (B.S. '65) and philosophy (B.S. '67).

"My mom's joke was that she was 'getting poorer by degrees,'" says Cohn, who now enjoys teaching classes at his own synagogue, Shaare Emeth, as well as the Jewish Community High School and Washington University.

He grew up in "a sweet spot in time," as he fondly calls it—a safe, middle-class, mostly Jewish neighborhood in 1940s and '50s-era University City, where the schools were wonderful. ("I am a Harvard graduate," Cohn quips, "through Delmar-Harvard School.") As a University City High School student, class of 1957, he was taught by such giants as Walter Ehrlich and Augusta Gottlieb.

For Cohn and many friends, the next stop was Washington University where he joined Pi Lambda Phi fraternity and became editor of Student Life newspaper. Continuing on to law school, he also edited that school's paper, The Writ. Still assuming he would be a lawyer, yet drawn to journalism, he heard a lecture by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch legal counsel, who advised anyone with that dual interest to come talk to him. The result was a rewarding first job as speechwriter and press secretary for Lawrence K. Roos, well-respected county executive.

Five years later, a fraternity brother, Michael Newmark—son of Melvin, then president of the Jewish Light board—urged him to consider becoming editor. Al Fleishman joined the chorus and soon Cohn found himself accepting the job, "for a couple of years, as a steppingstone to other things."

In 1969, the Jewish Light —until 1962 a house organ for the Jewish Federation—was in the process of becoming an independent newspaper, still partly funded by the Federation but run by a separate board. Cohn's goal was to accelerate that transition and cover the Jewish community in all its aspects, even if that meant tackling controversial subjects.

Just months later, he faced his first challenge when Rabbi Meir Kahane, ultranationalist founder of the Jewish Defense League, came to speak in St. Louis. Should the paper cover such a divisive figure? Cohn said yes, and prevailed when some tried to persuade him otherwise. Years later, Kahane thanked him, saying: "Mr. Cohn, you are one of the few journalists nationally who has been fair to me, and I appreciate that."

Since the 60,000-member Jewish community in St. Louis covers a broad faith spectrum—Reform, Conservative, Orthodox—some issues are bound to be sensitive. Cohn spent time cultivating strong relationships in the rabbinate and speaking at synagogues around the area. But where do you draw the line in tough journalistic cases? "Oliver Wendell Holmes said, 'You draw it in the right place,'" Cohn says. "So the key to being a successful judge or journalist is finding the right place to draw the line."

"... we get our intellect from God. So if this research can save a life, and God has endowed us with the capacity to do that, we should save lives," Cohn says.

The newspaper decided, for example, to print gay and lesbian marriage and birth announcements, despite some opposition from the Orthodox community. While it cannot endorse political candidates for fear of jeopardizing its 501(c)(3) status, the paper does take editorial stands on some critical matters, such as stem cell research—which it supports.

"One of the great rabbinic thinkers—Moses Maimonides, a 12th-century physician—said that the chief mitzvah is to save a life. Also, of course, we get our intellect from God. So if this research can save a life, and God has endowed us with the capacity to do that, we should save lives," Cohn says.

Although the print version of the Jewish Light still goes to 13,000 homes each week, with a readership of 45,000 or more, it is also changing with the times and providing an online version. But Cohn never has moved on, as he once had planned, though he has had nibbles from other publications.

"I'm the opposite of the Rolling Stones," says Cohn, who also loves spending time with his wife, Barbara, their three children, and growing flock of grandchildren. "I do get satisfaction. How many people can say that they still look forward to going to work after all these years?"

Candace O'Connor is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis and author of Beginning a Great Work: Washington University in St. Louis, 1853-2003 .