William Cohen

  • Born: June 27, 1936
  • Died: September 7, 2020
  • Location: Holland

Langeland-Sterenberg Funeral Home

315 E 16th St
Holland, MI 49423

info@langelandsterenberg.com
Tel. (616) 392-2306

Tribute & Message From The Family


William Cohen
June 27, 1936 – Sept. 7, 2020

William Cohen, age 84, of Holland, passed away Monday, September 7, 2020 at his home.

Born in Los Angeles, at age 10 William (Bill) Cohen moved with his mother and younger sister to New York City, and thereafter always considered himself a New Yorker. As a youth, his mother sent him to communist youth camps (notably WoChiCa, Workers' Children's Camp), and he went on to become part of the Communist Youth League, but subsequently questioned and then renounced the movement and communism. He was later drafted into the Army, which wished to exclude him because of his communist past, but he sued them on principle, won, and was assigned to work on counter-intelligence at Fort Knox. He attended Brooklyn College, and then went on to pursue higher degrees in history: a Masters at Columbia and a Ph.D at New York University. After his Ph.D, he moved to Chicago to study the history of race relations with the famed historian John Hope Franklin. It was there that he met Margaret (Margie) Proctor, whom he married in December 1972.

In 1971, he accepted a position as a history professor at Hope College, in Holland, MI, where he would spend the rest of his career. He was known by his students as a passionate and exacting professor, someone who pushed them towards rigor and critical thinking, but who brooked little sympathy for those unwilling to engage with the material. He felt that one of his greatest achievements was coaching the applications of Hope's top students in their applications for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, in which he achieved an impressive success rate. At the end of his career he also spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar teaching American History in Japan. He continued his research as well throughout his career. His two most notable achievements were his 1960 article, "Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery," showing that Thomas Jefferson had not treated his slaves in accordance with the principles he espoused on the public stage, and his 1991 book At Freedom's Edge, a history of black migration during the reconstruction period that showed how both economics and Jim Crow laws drove migration patterns, not just from South to North but also within the South. His 1960 article continues to have an impact, and was indeed one of the first steps in the rethinking of the place of the Founding Fathers in the American Pantheon, a process that continues today and on which Bill himself was decidedly ambivalent.

Despite his professional successes, in later life he considered his greatest achievement to have been his three children, Alan, Elizabeth, and Miriam (Mia). Margie died relatively young in 2000, and in 2007 he found his second partner in life, fellow New York expat Vivian Snapper, with whom he spent 11 happy years. She preceded him in death in 2018. One of his greatest points of pride was the devoted care he provided to both Margie and to Vivian as they each battled with cancer in their final years. After Vivian's passing, he was particularly close with his friend and neighbor Paul Lane.

Over the last year of his life, he struggled with chronic kidney disease. He passed away peacefully on September 7. He is survived by his three loving children Alan Cohen (Juhong Lee), Elizabeth Cohen (John Spieser), and Mia Franklin (Neal Franklin) and three grandchildren, Soren, Sonny, and Miriel, as well as by his brother-in-law Lewis "Buddy" Proctor (Joyce Smith) and his "adopted" son-in-law Gary Snapper (Nikki Boxer).

Funeral services were held at 2:00 pm, Saturday, September 12, 2020, a recording of the service may be viewed at: https://www.facebook.com/162113063827221/videos/1064300737360553 and Interment will be in the Temple Emmanuel section of Oak Hill Cemetery, Grand Rapids.

As a historian of race and immigration, and as someone committed to a just, fair, and open society, he requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent either to United We Dream ( https://secure.actblue.com/donate/uwdhomepage?refcode=uwd-header&amount=27.00 ) or to the Southern Poverty Law Center ( https://donate.splcenter.org/ ).

Arrangements are by Langeland-Sterenberg Funeral Home,


Condolence & Memory Journal

I learned much from Professor Cohen and appreciated his warmth and his genuine interest in his students. I took his American History course early, and while I developed a focus on Asian and European History during my years as a history major at Hope, he accepted my request to serve as advisor for my senior thesis for a topic in American history because I wanted to learn from his well-regarded research orientation. I'm so happy that I had a nice visit with him in 2016. My condolences to his family, from South Korea where I now reside. - Randy Durband, class of '82

Posted by Randy Durband - Student   September 29, 2020

I created this for Professor Cohen's dear family. You were very precious to him. I loved the virtual service, it was very honoring to him and I cried when his family raised their glasses together and said, L'Chaim, To Life! His mother, Anne Cohen did this each day with the residents in the nursing home in Holland where she lived and I worked...great memories. I will never forget Bill Cohen and his mother Anne from New York City.

Posted by Janice Dressander - Acquaintance   September 15, 2020

I'm unbelievably sad to learn of the death of my mentor, Dr. Bill Cohen. He was a significant historian (Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery, Journal of Southern History, 1960 (yep, in 1960, at age 24, he had already figured out something we're still debating today) and absolutely brilliant teacher. I owe the life I currently lead to him. He encountered me as a talented but unserious freshman in 1985 and, through his inspiring teaching and demand that I do my best, turned me into a committed, curious, and overachieving student. Over four years he taught me lessons that have lasted a lifetime. He supported me in my decision to go to law school rather than continue my studies in history, even though I knew he was disappointed, and wrote me an astonishingly generous recommendation letter that likely cemented my acceptance to a top law school. As a teacher, he was rigorous, demanding, and always supportive. He met you where you were, but insisted that you be your best. He believed in me, and so I wasn't about to let him down. I hope I didn't. ... Bill also cared about the world the way he cared about history, and his students. He was passionate about justice and equality. He would talk about his time in the army in the era of mandatory conscription, and what a powerful experience it was to serve as it brought him, a Brooklyn boy raised as a Marxist, together with people of all races, home states, and political beliefs, working together in a common cause. He lamented the fact that there was no equivalent leveling institution in contemporary life and feared this was increasing divisions and misunderstandings within society. He thought that in 1988. ... I am so grateful for having known this great man, the lessons he taught, and the example he set, which remains so relevant today. I will do my best, Bill. You have my everlasting thanks.

Posted by David Kraska - San Francisco, CA - Student   September 15, 2020

Professor Cohen was a great example to me of working with both Jewish and Christian Traditions...I will never forget what I learned and have put into practice as a Staff Development Coordinator/Dementia Trainer. I am wondering if any of Bill Cohen's children would want some photos and a presentation which he gave me permission many years ago to teach about the story of his mother, entitled "Anne Cohen's Story." If so please email me, as I have taught it for many years, and he provided me with photos to tell her story. My sympathy is with the family. Jan Dressander

Posted by Jan Dressander - Acquaintance   September 14, 2020

Lots of great memories of Dr. Cohen from my days at Hope - first as a student in the mid-1980's and then later as a colleague until I left the faculty in 2001. He was, indeed, an exacting professor and my greatest memories of him were teaching the history department's capstone course, the Senior Seminar. He pushed us hard and the red ink on the earlier drafts of my thesis were never ending. But it was the best preparation I could possibly have had for graduate school. He was also someone who cared about his students, even though on the surface he could be gruff and argumentative at times. I remember him taking the seminar students - there were like 5 or 6 of us - to a Chinese restaurant in Grand Rapids. Despite my negative feelings about it, he introduced me to sushi - and I loved it! He knew how to press an argument!

Dr. Cohen will definitely be missed! Attached is him in what I believe was the spring of 1987 at a party that I believe nearly all of the history department faculty - and others too - attended as we got ready to graduate at Hope.

Posted by Larry Wagenaar - Ada, MI - Student   September 14, 2020

So sorry to read of your father's passing. Got to know him at Lubbers Hall third floor when I was a secretary and he a professor. Good memories. Cherish the memories. Karen Michmerhuizen

Posted by Karen Michmerhuizen - Holland, MI - Coworker   September 13, 2020

Candle

Liz, Mia and Alan, thank you so much for making it possible for us to join you in celebrating Bill's life. I learned so much about him, and am so grateful that I had the chance to know him and will continue to feel his spirit in your presence.

Posted by Sharman Spieser - Ypsilanti, MI - Family Friend   September 12, 2020

Cousin Billy, that's what I always knew him by, was a sweet person who went out of his way to connect with family in NJ. The last time I saw Bill we shared so many family stories and had a wonderful time. I will miss his stories because Billy was much older than me and knew a lot of family history. A gentle soul, he sure was.
Cousin Susie

Posted by Sue Sental - Lincoln Park,, NJ - Family   September 12, 2020

I didn't have the honor of knowing "Billy" the scholar and professor. I knew Billy my oldest cousin and a person who was caring and loved his family. I have few memories of our childhood as Billy was 7 years my senior and lived in LA until he was 10. Also he lived in Brooklyn and I was growing up in the then rural northern NJ suburbs. I remember him taking his Cocker spaniel, Jerry for a walk, and his family's visits on Thanksgiving. That's it for childhood. But the adult I knew and loved was the guy who would make the trip from MI to see the family in NJ. I admired him so much for that effort. Each visit with him was a joy I will cherish. He always brought warmth and love that stayed with you, and it will continue to warm my heart for the rest of my life. Joanie Affe Palmino cousin.

Posted by JOAN PALMINO - WAYNE, NJ - Family   September 12, 2020

My family and I are deeply saddened by Bill passing! We always looked forward to spending time with him. He will be missed! Our deepest condolences to his wonderful family and many friends and colleagues!
Vesna, Michael Petrovich, Jr. and Vesna's family

Posted by Vesna Petrovich - Sarasota, FL - Friend   September 12, 2020

Candle

We remember Doc well as young Hope students early in Doc's career when he first showed up at Hope in the early 70s. For those of us during those earlier days of social upheaval and Presidential shenanigans (Watergate, Vietnam), Doc was a refreshingand challenging voice for young activists seeking mentors in a very conservative college environment. Prayers to the family... We will miss him!

Posted by David Beattie - Holland, MI - Student   September 12, 2020

Bill Cohen made American history come alive for me as a Hope student in 1975. I could not wait to attend his class. He was one of the college's greatest academic treasures. What an extraordinary human being. May he rest in peace......

Posted by Mark Higgins - Durham, NC - Student   September 12, 2020

Funny, acerbic, observant, fierce, intelligent, rigorous, worldly, demanding and always always kind - every conversation was great - Thank you, Bill. The world is lesser without you.

Posted by M. Linda Graham - Hamilton, MI - Friend   September 11, 2020

My condolences to Alan, Mia and Elizabeth. I knew Bill as very loyal, caring and dedicated to family. When my mother Frances died (in 1998) he tried to provide emotional and personal support to my sister Lela and me. And when Lela died (in 2015) he tried to provide support for me and he flew out to Massachusetts and attended her Memorial Service and spoke at it as well. This was a very caring thing to do. (You can see him speaking there on this webpage: https://lydiagillespie.wordpress.com/memorial-service/ [Starting near the end of the first video from the top, at counter # 37:00 and continuing into the second video from top.])

I also knew him as someone who was very thorough when he put his mind to something, and he had his principles and he stuck by them. While he and I had some political disagreements, I think he was an upstanding, decent and good man who made a positive contribution to life around him.

I think he lived with basic integrity and decency and therefore I am confident and I trust that he is in a good place at this time.

-Vincent Gillespie

Posted by Vincent Gillespie - Athol, MA - Family   September 11, 2020

Bill was the first person to visit Peter and Cheri Jolivette new home in TIGARD,OR in Sep 2005. We had been friends for years.

Posted by Cheri Jolivette - Tigard, OR - Family Friend   September 10, 2020

Bill was one of those incredible friends whose comments were often "on the other hand". It is no wonder that he was ambivalent about complex topics because he could also see the rational opposite, the contrasting view. It is why he would often challenge my feminist perspective while at the same time strongly supporting justice for women. The picture is from a party in the mid-70s where Bill and I had just engaged in 20 minutes of argument, and I finally said "I give up", and headed to the kitchen for my drink, when I turned around there he was ready to continue the debate! As I have said before, exasperating and beloved. He will be missed.

Posted by Jane Dickie - Saugatuck, MI - Friend   September 10, 2020

Bill and Margie were integral parts of our lives from those early 70's in Holland, and I will so miss the lovely dinner-and-a-movie meet ups with Bill over the past five years. Never at a loss for what needed discussing and dissecting, his "ahh" will be with me and his mindful respect but it's just not the same without his unique self here.

Posted by Arlene Clark - Grand Haven, MI   September 10, 2020

And we must never forget Bill's wide sense of humor, that chuckle will stay forever with us. Even when that jaw would clench in firm conviction, he would acknowledge his pervasive ambivalence. Bill's presence will stay.

Posted by Jack Ridl - Saugatuck, MI - Friend   September 10, 2020


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Community Photos

Bill was one of those incredible friends whose comments were often "on the other hand". It is no wonder that he was ambivalent about complex topics because he could also see the rational opposite, the contrasting view. It is why he would often challenge my feminist perspective while at the same time strongly supporting justice for women. The picture is from a party in the mid-70s where Bill and I had just engaged in 20 minutes of argument, and I finally said "I give up", and headed to the kitchen for my drink, when I turned around there he was ready to continue the debate! As I have said before, exasperating and beloved. He will be missed.
Lots of great memories of Dr. Cohen from my days at Hope - first as a student in the mid-1980's and then later as a colleague until I left the faculty in 2001. He was, indeed, an exacting professor and my greatest memories of him were teaching the history department's capstone course, the Senior Seminar. He pushed us hard and the red ink on the earlier drafts of my thesis were never ending. But it was the best preparation I could possibly have had for graduate school. He was also someone who cared about his students, even though on the surface he could be gruff and argumentative at times. I remember him taking the seminar students - there were like 5 or 6 of us - to a Chinese restaurant in Grand Rapids. Despite my negative feelings about it, he introduced me to sushi - and I loved it! He knew how to press an argument! Dr. Cohen will definitely be missed! Attached is him in what I believe was the spring of 1987 at a party that I believe nearly all of the history department facul