July 5, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Community Remembers Norman Cohn, Distinguished Professor Emeritus

Dr. Norman Cohn

Dr. Norman Cohn

Dr. Norman Cohn, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Environmental & Plant Biology, age 86, died on June 29, 2016, at his home in Pittsburgh, PA, where he lived with his wife of 60 years, Margaret “Peggy” Cohn.

He had joined the Ohio University faculty in 1959 after having earned his B.S. degree at the University of Pennsylvania, his master’s at the University of Kentucky, and his Ph.D. at Yale. Cohn retired in 1996 as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Environmental & Plant Biology at Ohio University, where he had also served as chair of the Botany Department, followed by an 11-year term as dean of the Graduate College. He mentored many graduate students and taught countless undergraduates.

“Norm was a strong advocate for scholarship and excellence in all aspects of Ohio University, especially during his tenure as Dean of the Graduate College. Through his leadership the then Department of Botany (now Department of Environmental & Plant Biology) began its transition from a department of local emphasis into one with an international reputation for excellence in research and student training,” says Dr. James Braselton, Professor Emeritus and former Chair of Environmental & Plant Biology.

Norman Cohn“Norm was a mentor to a number of young faculty, and advised many undergraduate and graduate students who went on to become outstanding, world leaders in their respective research areas,” adds Braselton.

One of Cohn’s students was Ralph Quatrano ’64, who says his time with Cohn was “game changing for me personally and professionally.” Quatrano is internationally known for his plant science work and was one of the earliest investigators to apply the tools of molecular biology to the study of gene expression.

“Both Norm and Peggy were helpful and supportive of our family, especially with the birth of our second child Beth. At the same time, my professional career went from my initial goal of obtaining an M.S. degree to teach and coach at the high school level to earning a Ph.D. at Yale,” Quatrano said. “Norm believed I could be successful and supported me in my application to Yale and many years afterward. His support was also very motivating for me since I did not want to let him down. Norm’s way of teaching and doing science was very influential and was the start of the foundation upon which I built my approach to both.”

Alum Bob Goldberg ’66 concurred, adding, “Norm transformed my life, too. He was a good friend and a role model of what a professor and person should be. He will be missed very much.” Goldberg is the Distinguished Professor of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, UCLA and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cohn published numerous articles in the field of radiation genetics and the chemistry of genetic materials as well as two books, one of which, Elements of Cytology, was made available in a Spanish edition. Cohn lectured in the United States, Scotland, England, Italy, and Czechoslovakia and received 14 research grants, including two Fulbright research scholarships to the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

His outgoing personality, passion for teaching, and interest in other cultures led him and Peggy to host international students and faculty in their home and at the university. One of his fondest academic memories was of doing research and teaching with a Fulbright grant for two and one-half years at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, where he became fluent in the Dutch language. After retiring, he followed both his Ohio University and international students’ careers with delight, taking pleasure in their letters, emails, and visits. Cohn’s compassion for others manifested in such diverse activities as interceding with students during the 1970 protests and later, after his retirement, becoming part of the Athens Mediation Service.

Lifelong Love Affair with the Arts

Academics was only one part of Cohn’s life. He had a lifelong love affair with the arts, most especially the movies. Also a very active live-theater fan, he made his Athens stage debut with Ohio Valley Summer Theater’s “You Can’t Take It With You” in 1965 in the role of Paul Sycamore. His favorite OVST role was Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey.” Cohn joined the ABC Players in Nelsonville as both actor and director. He served on the OVST Board 1972-80 and 1982-89 and was recognized in 1982 through that organization’s Baedecker Award. He narrated a radio production of “Alice in Wonderland” and joined the Ohio University School of Music’s “Don Giovanni” (as Don Ottavio). Norm hosted an arts interview radio show on WOUB for two years. He received numerous awards for both theater and musical performance, including one for Lenski’s aria from “Eugene Onegin.”

The true soundtrack to his life, however, was classical music, whether he was in the laboratory distilling DNA from the pea plants he had grown from seed, driving his family of five across the country in a car with no air conditioning, or planning a meeting of the Athens Village, which he and Peggy had co-founded. Vocal music gave him the deepest satisfaction, both his singing of it himself and hearing others sing. He gave many recitals throughout the years, the last of which was in Pittsburgh in November of 2015.

Cohn is survived by his wife, Peggy (Pittsburgh), and his brother Alan and brother-in-law, Bill (Bradenton, FL). He constantly kvelled over his son, Nick, and son-in-law, Pim (Amsterdam); son, Jason, and daughter-in-law, Pam (Pittsburgh); daughter, Alison, and son-in-law, Ralph (Tucson); grandson, Christopher (Pittsburgh); granddaughter, Susannah (Pittsburgh); and granddaughter, Niko (Tucson).

A service was Tuesday, July 5, at Jagers & Sons Funeral Home, 24 Morris Ave., Athens, Ohio at 1 p.m., with a graveside service afterward at Alexander Cemetery, Athens.

Donations may be made in memory of Norman Cohn to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, AL 37104 Attn: Felecia Taylor.
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