Life keeps getting in the way. Shortly before his high school graduation, his father died, and with his mother deceased as well, Cohen, a Rhode Island native, had to put college aside to support his brother and three sisters. While working as a delivery boy, he noticed there was money to be made selling the empty corrugated-cardboard boxes he hauled each day, so three years later he and a friend founded a wastepaper company for recovering fibers from old cardboard boxes. "We thought we'd make enough money to go to college," Cohen says.
But once again it was not to be. In 1941, Cohen was drafted and served in the Pacific Theater until November 1945. Tired of regimentation, he balked at returning to school right after World War II, so he rejoined his company, United Paper Stock, instead. Forty years later, he and his partner sold the business, and college beckoned. "I didn't care to sit in front of a TV set, play golf all day, or play cards," Cohen says. "I'm accustomed to doing something with some meat to it. And I like to finish what I've started."
Cohen's wife, Elaine, a Syracuse graduate, and his daughter, Hilary, then a student at the University of Pennsylvania, urged Cohen to take a look at Brown's Resumed Undergraduate Education program. In 1987 he enrolled in his first class, an education course that examined high school in America during the Great Depression. "And here I was a living example of high school in the 1930s," Cohen says.
That first class, he recalls, "was rather intimidating. Here I was with youngsters who knew all the answers. But they seemed to welcome me." Now eighty-three and fresh from cataract surgery, Cohen is four classes shy of his A.B. in history. He takes one course a semester, a schedule that he says allows him to "be a good mate" to his wife, as well as to play golf and serve as a volunteer consultant to small-business owners. Over the years, he has particularly enjoyed courses in Judaic studies, Russian history, and American history dating to Reconstruction. Among his other favorites have been Archaeology of Palestine, Persuasive Communications, and a seminar on the relationships between African Americans and Jews.
Cohen says his fellow undergraduates treat him well, despite their age difference. "I can't play ball with them or go beer drinking with them," he says. "But I do think a lot of the students feel quite pleased to have me in their class. I think a lot of students admire me for doing this. Some youngsters say to me, 'Gee, I wish my father would do this.'" To others considering a similar journey, he gives this advice: don't let age hold you back.
What does the future hold for a man who will exit the Van Wickle gates at age eighty-five? Cohen's cousin jokes that he should apply to medical school. "If I make 2001," Cohen says, "then I'll take a look."