Veteran educator pulls up stakes

SUNDAY SNAPSHOTS

Milestone: Ed Cohen, 0...

November 02, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Veteran educator pulls up stakes; Milestone: Ed Cohen, 0) camp director and teacher, is calling it quits, but he will never, it seems, stop seeing people.

It never fails. In the shopping mall and downtown, anywhere around town Ed Cohen goes, somebody is stopping him to say hello, give him a hug, ask how he's doing. They remember him from their days in summer camp or elementary school, college or junior high. A reunion of the people around Baltimore whose lives Cohen has touched would probably have to be held at Camden Yards.

So many years and so many people in a good, long life. Ed Cohen is 70 and robust, but the erstwhile teacher and school administrator is retiring as executive director of Camps Airy & Louise. He's been executive director since 1988 and worked at the camps near the Catoctin Mountains for 29 summers.

"Through much agony" is his answer to the question of how he made the decision to retire, effective Nov. 1. "It'll be the first time in 50 years I don't have a job. I've never had less than three jobs at a time. This is new to me."

Born and raised in Baltimore, educated at Johns Hopkins University, Cohen worked as a city public school teacher, vice principal and principal for 20 years. He left city schools to teach elementary education at Towson University. After retiring from the university in 1984, he became associate executive director of the camps.

At the same time he also worked as a salesperson at Hecht Co. and as a travel agent. Just to be around people, he says, just to help people out.

"I like working with people," he says. "I don't know if it shows."

It shows. Sidling up to Ed Cohen for a talk is a bit like cozying up to a fireplace on a winter night. In the passing of several generations, Cohen has cultivated a reputation for empathy and for knowing how to listen.

"He makes you want to talk to him," says Mike Schneider, 44, the new executive director who has worked for Cohen at the camps since he graduated from high school. Ask him what it's like to follow Cohen as executive director, and Schneider speaks of former Baltimore Oriole Doug DeCinces, who succeeded Brooks Robinson at third base.

"It's hard to live up to a legend," says Schneider.

"People just gravitate toward him," says Phyllis Cohen, Ed's wife of 48 years. "We have already been on a street corner in London when somebody came up and gave him a big hug: 'Hi, Ed, how're you doing?' "

It was a former camp counselor. This sort of thing happens all the time, she says.

So why retire? Why now?

"It's time," says Cohen, father of three, grandfather of four. He says he and his wife, an administrative assistant for the camps, work year-round. In the off-season they travel to colleges to recruit counselors, interview and hire prospective staff members, and conduct promotions for the camps, which have been in business more than 70 years. The camp staff numbers about 300, serving roughly 2,100 youngsters each summer.

"We have loved it, but there comes a time when somebody else has to do it," says Cohen.

There have been letters of tribute from camp staff members and former members, but there will be no retirement party.

"I can't handle that," says Cohen. "I'm not belittling myself. I know I've made a difference in so many lives, teaching or whatever. But I did it because I wanted to do it."

A significant part of our everyday lives is spent sifting through clues from our environment, our five senses acting as a compass to help orient us in a world full of sensory data.

Imagine if one of those compass points were broken off.

"When I first started to lose my hearing," says Anne Pope, "I would be walking down the street and wouldn't hear people's footsteps who were coming up behind me. Aside from a pure safety viewpoint, it was very startling."

Pope, 59, a Baltimore native whose father, Thomas B. Turner, is dean emeritus of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, began losing her hearing about 10 years ago, when she developed Meniere's disease. This disorder is characterized by prolonged spells of vertigo that can claim a little bit of hearing with each episode.

"Losing your hearing is always very difficult, but it's even more so when you lose it quickly like I did," says Pope, who lost more than half her hearing in a little over six months. "I suddenly felt very isolated, like one of those bubble babies."

That feeling helped prompt Pope, a Roland Park Country Day School alumnus who now serves as a trustee there, to try to help others in the same predicament. In conjunction with the national organization Self Help for Hard of Hearing People, she wrote "Hear," a book meant as an all-in-one resource for the hearing-impaired.

According to the National Association of the Deaf, by age 65, a third of the population has suffered some kind of hearing loss. Nerve damage to the ear, either by heredity or noise, affects some 17 million people nationwide.

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