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Saturday, December 17, 2016

William Howard Cohen, Poet, Professor, Hero

William Howard Cohen was unique.  He was one of the most outspoken, brilliant, and weird men I have ever known.  I first met Bill Cohen in the summer of 1966 when I was attending Upward Bound on the campus of Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, KY.  Bill Cohen, as he generally preferred to be known, despite his doctoral degree, taught English and Humanities at ALC.  He was probably more broadly known in Knott County than many other professors at the school because of his outspoken nature, his unique differences with most of the locals and even the other ALC staff.  Bill was a constantly moving, constantly talking, highly opinionated man.  Looking back on Bill through the lens of twenty years experience in the mental health field, it is my considered professional opinion that Bill Cohen was probably dealing with a diagnosis of Bipolar Affective Disorder, rapid cycling type.  Bill demonstrated most if not all of the symptoms of the diagnosis.  He had rapid, constant, pressured speech, flight of ideas, grandiosity, distractibility, and was a constant ball of sometimes unfocused energy.  Bill Cohen was also a great teacher and knew American literature, poetry, and Haiku cover to cover, front to back, upside down and sideways.  

William Howard Cohen was an accomplished poet and wrote several books of poetry during his life.  They included "The Hill Way Home Poems From The Appalachian Highlands" which was published during the time he was teaching at Alice Lloyd College.  This book probably represents his best work in more traditional poetic styles.  

He also wrote and published "Mexico '68 The New World Of Man: Poems From The Olympic Games".  This book consisted of poems which Bill wrote while he was attending the Olympic Games in Mexico City as a cultural delegate from the US.  I knew Bill at that time and I will never forget how excited he was to learn that he had been chosen to represent the country at the Olympics.  He was even more excited when he returned.  I will always remember an incident which happened in one of his humanities classes after his return.  His flight of ideas was running rampant that particular day and he was still incredibly excited about his recent trip.  Literally in the middle of a lecture about Greek architecture, he said "Doric column are...Man, you should have seen Jim Ryun run down that track."  

William Howard Cohen also wrote "Conversations With Albert Einstein And Other Poems From The Einstein Year" which was published in 1979 after he had left Alice Lloyd College.  Sadly, I have never read this book since I learned of it too late to buy a new copy and now it is usually priced outside my range on Internet based used book sites.  But I know without reading the book that it will reflect Bill's fascination with genius and high achieving people in general.  

After leaving Alice Lloyd College, he also edited a book of children's poetry called "Under Enchanted Boughs: Children's Poems From The Duval County Schools" which was a project of the Jacksonville Children's Museum Outreach Program.  I have also never seen a copy of this book at somewhat reasonable prices on Internet used book websites.

During his time in Southern Illinois, William Howard Cohen also published another book of poetry entitled "A House In The Country Poems From Southern Illinois".  I have not read this book either and have never been able to find a copy for sale when I have searched for it.  Considering that it was published very early in his career, I suspect it will be primarily composed of more traditionally styled poetry much like the poems in "The Hill Way Home...".  

William Howard Cohen was an international expert on Haiku, the well-known form of Japanese poetry, and his best known book was called "To Walk In Seasons An Introduction To Haiku".   This book was published in 1972 after he left Knott County but I am certain that he was working on it at the time he was teaching in Kentucky.  I still find Haiku experts writing about and referring to this book online nearly fifty years after it was published.  In fact, as I was writing this post, I found a blog post about the book by a poet and professor named Don Wentworth.   I also recently responded to another Haiku expert's piece about "To Walk In Seasons..." in which the writer attempted to critique the book quite negatively.  But I am sure that the Bill Cohen I knew would have laughed out loud to know that his little book was still being criticized by experts nearly half a century after he wrote it.  

I also just found another memoir piece from a former student of Bill's, Dan Kenneth Phillips, at this web address.   This piece discusses having been a student of Bill's and his nickname, "The Blue Noodle", the origin of which no one seems to know.   Thank you, Dan, for remembering Bill just as fondly as I and many other former proteges do. 

Shortly after I met Bill Cohen, he took me to a statewide poetry gathering at Western Kentucky University which was flattering.  I had been chosen to travel to a writer's gathering in the company and under the mentorship of an internationally recognized poet.  That was a lot for a teenager from Dema, Ky.  At that time, it was probably as far as I had ever been away from my home on Beaver Creek.  Bill arranged for us to stay in a university guest house and I remember being highly impressed to be in a bedroom with matching, fancy, delicate furniture and wall paper with border added.  It was a trip that taught me a lot about both poetry and William Howard Cohen.  I enjoyed it greatly.  At that meeting, I also met former Kentucky Poet Laureate Joy Bale for the first time.

Bill Cohen also loved and collected art.  I do not know that he owned any art which had serious value but he had good taste and his home, which was provided by Alice Lloyd College, was filled by paintings, sculptures, and mobiles from his travels around the country and the world.  I always remember a carved sandstone statue which he kept on a set of steps which divided the two levels of the house.

During his time at Alice Lloyd College, William Howard Cohen would become an outstanding and outspoken advocate against strip mining.  He would use some of his spare time to join and to initiate protests at strip mine sites.  He would often lie down in front of coal trucks leaving strip mines in an attempt to stop production.  When he did this, Bill always carried an American flag and a Bible which he placed on his chest as he lay on his back in the middle of the haul roads.  People would ask him if he wasn't afraid of being run over by a coal truck and his answer was always the same: "I know these mountain boys.  They might run over a little Jew from Florida but they won't run over the flag and the Bible."  It turned out he was always correct in that assessment.  During this period, the Louisville Courier Journal featured Bill in a Sunday Magazine article and he was mentioned in several other stories in the paper.  It is my belief that his activism against strip mining played a large part in his being fired by Alice Lloyd College.  Many of the early graduates and supporters of the college had become wealthy and were involved in the coal industry.  There is no doubt such people would have resisted having such a committed advocate of environmentalism on the faculty and their financial support of the institution would have been unlikely.  Alice Lloyd College eventually fired William Howard Cohen and he moved on to the Jacksonville, Florida, area.  Kentucky lost a fine professor, a better than average poet, and one of the most outstanding advocates for environmentalism in the state at the time.  In my opinion, William Howard Cohen was just as important an opponent of strip mining as Preacher Dan Gibson or Widow Ollie Combs who spent Thanksgiving of 1964 in the Knott County Jail because of her opposition to strip mining.  William Howard Cohen is a fine example of that group of non-native residents of Appalachia who became heroes for the region.  

William Howard Cohen died in the Gainesville, Florida area in 2007.  If anyone reading this knows of his exact burial location or the disposition of his body, and any other information about Bill Cohen, I would love to know about it.  I also do not own a photograph of Bill and I would love to have one if anyone has one to scan and share.  I would post it on this blog post and give full photographer credit.  "Baruch Dayan Emet, Blessed is the true judge."  Rest In Peace, Bill!  

Bill Cohen was probably the first Jewish person I ever met although he was not a practicing Jew at the time I knew him.  It is possible if he had not been living more than 100 miles from the nearest synagogue he might have practiced more diligently.  But he had no qualms about telling anyone in Eastern Kentucky of the  late 1960's that he was a Jew.  He was always honest and outspoken about everything he was, did, or believed.  I will always cherish having known and been able to learn from Bill Cohen.  

Here is a link to the obituary of William Howard Cohen which was located and provided by Ray Turner.  Thanks, Ray!


Ray Turner said...

William Howard Cohen

COHEN, WILLIAM HOWARD Gainesville - Dr. Cohen, Age 79, Retired College Professor, died Friday, January 19, 2007, at Palm Garden of Gainesville. Dr. Cohen was born in Jacksonville, Florida where he was a Graduate of Jackson High School; He received his Bachelor's Degree in Literature and a Master's in Fine Arts from the University of Florida. He later received his PhD from Southern Illinois University. He taught at Alice Lloyd College (of Hindman, Kentucky) and Southern Illinois University (of Carbondale, IL). Dr. Cohen moved to Gainesville from Interlachen, Florida a year ago where he resided until his demise. He was of the Jewish Faith. Dr. Cohen is survived by: Wife (of 54 years) - Dolores Brooke Cohen of Gainesville, FL; Sister - Mariam Setzer of Baltimore, MD; Brother - Larry Cohen of Brownville; In-Laws; Nieces & Nephews, Cousins & Friends. Arrangements were entrusted to DUNCAN BROTHERS' FUNERAL HOME, 428 NW 8th Street, Gainesville, FL.

Published in Gainesville Sun from Jan. 25 to Jan. 26, 2007

Roger D. Hicks said...

Ray Turner, thanks for sending the link to Bill's Obituary. I have done dozens of Google Searches over the years and also searched Find A Grave and never found it. Maybe I wasn't searching appropriately. Did you know Bill also? I would love to hear the stories of others about him. Thanks, Roger!

Ray Turner said...

No, I didn't know him and am sorry for that; your description of him attests to the joy of having had his acquaintance.

Stephanie said...

Hi I'm William's niece. I have a copy of To Walk in Seasons somewhere. I never met him, but I've heard great things about him. It would have been an honor to know him. I would love to learn more about him as well.

Roger D. Hicks said...

Stephanie, I would be glad to converse with you about Bill! Send me an e-mail on one of my listed addresses. I am sure you have some information about him that I could use in a project I am working on. I also knew Dee Dee!
Roger D. Hicks