Larry Cohen, the only person in St. Paul's history to serve as mayor, chairman of the Ramsey County Board and chief judge of the Ramsey County District Court, died Sunday after a brief battle with cancer.
Cohen, 83, died at his home in St. Paul at 4:40 a.m. with his wife, his five children and his stepson at his bedside. His terminal lung cancer was diagnosed three weeks ago, but he told no one but his wife and children until after the wedding of his nephew's daughter a week and a half ago, said his nephew and godson, Alan Margoles.
"When he went to the wedding, he was in a wheelchair and in great pain," Margoles said. "But nobody figured it out at all. He just put on a chipper face because he didn't want to cast a pall on the wedding."
Retired District Judge Kathleen Gearin served on the bench with Cohen from 1988 to 2002 and remembers him as a joyful person who passed along that passion for his life and work.
"Everybody in the courthouse knew him and loved him,'' Gearin said. "He just constantly would look at the best in people."
Despite his upbeat demeanor, Gearin said, Cohen was not a pushover on sentencing defendants. "But he never demeaned the people he was sentencing," she added. He focused on the actions that put a person in prison, rather than deciding that they were "rotten human beings."
Gearin said Cohen loved St. Paul and would coin "Larry-isms" including one he was often credited with: "What's the difference between Minneapolis and St. Paul? You don't find Minneapolis in the Bible."
Cohen was a St. Paul native, the son of a jeweler and a homemaker. He graduated from Central High School, where he played the lead role in many plays and musicals. He earned undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Minnesota. At the U, he was head of the Young Democrats and active in the NAACP, his nephew said.
On graduating, he entered private practice, where Cohen continued his lifelong struggle for civil rights, Margoles said.
"When the Wounded Knee trials came here in the 1970s, Larry got all the parties together — the defense attorneys, the prosecutors, the police and members of AIM [the American Indian Movement], and he said, 'I want everybody to have their First Amendment rights vindicated, I want all the protests validated and able to take place,' but he didn't want any violence," Margoles said. "And there was no violence."
Because of his work, members of AIM held a naming ceremony for Cohen's newborn son — who already had a strong name, David Solomon Wang Cohen. The boy became David Solomon Wang Charging Buffalo Cohen, his nephew said.
As a judge, Cohen set up a certification program for court interpreters after concluding that newer immigrant groups weren't being properly served. He also set up a program called Hmong circles of peace to help resolve disputes.
Cohen's first foray into elective office came when he was voted onto the Ramsey County Board. He ran for mayor in 1971 and served two terms, until 1976. When he took office, the mayor had just one vote on the City Council and ran no departments. The mayor didn't make the city's budget and had little planning capacity. Then a new charter was adopted, and Cohen saw that the mayor's powers were greatly expanded.
Margoles said his uncle started the city's paramedic program and the concept of team policing and formed the Citizens Information and Complaint Service. He had a weekly "open door" policy, in which anyone could come and talk to him, his nephew said.
He also led a drive for the city to buy the old federal courthouse on Rice Park and had it refurbished. It is now the Landmark Center.
After his terms as mayor, Cohen returned to private practice. He had a general practice, working for everyone from corporate clients to criminal defense. For a time in the 1980s, he represented Marine Sgt. Clayton Lonetree of St. Paul in an espionage case.
In addition to his public service, Cohen served on "a million" boards, including the Jewish Community Center, the Urban League, the advisory board for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and, early on, the Minnesota Environmental Control Citizens Association, a militant antipollution group. He served on numerous city and state boards and was an adjunct professor at the St. Thomas College of Law.
Margoles said then-Gov. Rudy Perpich wanted to appoint Cohen to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Cohen declined, his nephew said, because "he wanted to have contact with the people."
Cohen was a district judge from 1988 to 2002, then a senior judge. He never suffered from what lawyers call "Black Robe Disease," Margoles said. "Larry didn't think of himself as better than anybody," he said.
Family was always vitally important to him, Margoles added. His sister, June Margoles, was always co-chair or chairwoman of his campaigns. He was the "fun uncle," Margoles said — the one who would tickle you and swing you in a circle by an arm and a leg.
Civic leaders have a plan to erect a statue of Cohen at the Ramsey County Courthouse, Margoles said. "There aren't enough heroes around … and Larry was one," he said. "He was a hero for everybody."
Cohen is survived by his wife, Kathi; children Sam, Chuck, Amy, Scott and David; stepchildren Ryan Hawn and Janel Golden; two grandchildren, and four stepgrandchildren.
Services will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Temple of Aaron, 616 Mississippi River Blvd., St. Paul. Shiva will be held there on Tuesday and Wednesday.