The phone in my faculty office at the University of Notre Dame seldom rang. Weeks might go by without a single call. Even then, it was usually internal, some point of school business. But one day in late November 2017, there on the other end of the line, on speakerphone, was “Judge Cohn, calling from Detroit.”
I confess I had not heard of him. What can I say? I was a Hoosier then.
Wrong number? Disgruntled parent? Surprise legal trouble?
But he was not calling for those reasons. He wanted to talk history.
On the rare occasions a member of the public called me up at Notre Dame, it was always a Founding Fathers question. What would Ben Franklin have thought about GMOs? Is it true America’s first official language was German? About those wooden teeth?
But it was not any of that either. Amazingly, Judge Cohn had read my academic book on early Detroit. Then he had read someone else’s academic book on early Detroit. He was worried that dredging up painful chapters of the past might undo the city’s momentum on race relations and social justice. He wanted to know what could be done about it.
We batted books and ideas back and forth. We talked about the place and the role of history — how to use it and what for. He urged me to take up his concerns. I invited him to consider mine. After we hung up, I looked him up. He was 93 then and still on the bench.
We traded follow-up phone calls. He asked for additional reading materials. I sent them, marveling that he was already so deeply knowledgeable about Detroit’s history. And yet here he was, going out of his way to learn and consider even more.
By the time I said goodbye to Notre Dame six months later, Judge Cohn was in my rearview mirror — or so I thought.
That July, as I sat in a Southfield boardroom for my JHSM job interview, the subject of the organization’s longtime supporters came up. The names were unknown to me — until someone mentioned Avern Cohn.
“I know Judge Cohn!”
The connection was even closer than I knew: A family member was on the search committee. Ultimately, I got the job — thanks in no small measure to Judge Cohn’s endorsement of this non-Jew from Indiana.
Judge Cohn’s personal and professional achievements are well known and well documented. But I soon learned he was also an accomplished historian, researching and writing about Detroit’s early years, as well as Michigan’s Jewish and legal history. And he used his resources to help history-focused organizations — JHSM, the Historical Society of Michigan, the Michigan History Foundation, the Walter P. Reuther Library, the Detroit Historical Society, the Clarke Historical Library, the Historical Society for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, which he helped found. He has done far more for history than most professional historians.
He was a longtime friend to JHSM in particular. He first appeared on our membership rolls in 1962, three years after the organization’s founding. He attended and supported our programs and initiatives. He helped make it possible for us to honor good scholarship in our journal with a monetary prize. For his importance to us and to the community, we awarded him the 1992 Leonard N. Simons History-Maker Award. He was, indeed, a history-maker in every sense of the term.
After I started at JHSM, Judge Cohn and I resumed our history discussions over lunch in his judicial chambers, and then, after his retirement, masked on his patio. He had ideas at every turn: new topics for our journal, new supporters we should cultivate, new research projects he had taken up after poring over a new map or book. He sent notes of commendation, or frustration, as occasion demanded.
Last spring he offered his 500-volume Judaica library to JHSM. As I packed up books in his basement, he hovered, feeling — in his words — like a mother whose children were being taken away. Keep the children, I advised. There is no reason not to. But he was adamant the time was right for them to fly the nest, to be enjoyed in our reading room, post-pandemic. In the end, we boxed the books he loved and put them in wobbly stacks, to be retrieved later, in stages.
As I prepared to leave his house that day, Judge Cohn called me into his office. He had some unfinished history business he hoped I would take up for him. I protested, noting his far better position. He insisted, noting his limited mobility. I pointed out the telephone on his desk. He railed, before conceding he probably could make some calls. As I left, he gave me, for my own collection, two of his oldest books: an 1837 set of Alexis de Tocqueville’s celebrated political text, De la démocratie en Amérique — part of a research project he had just finished. I wish I had thought to have him sign them.
As I mourn with and for Judge Cohn’s family, I am astonished by all JHSM has gained from its sixty-year friendship with him, and all I gained in knowing him a fraction of that time. We all are better for it. May his memory be for a blessing.
Photo courtesy of Elayne Gross Photography