Op-Ed Eulogy for Jerry Cohon

June 24, 2024

by Susan Baida

As the newly hired Executive Director of the Collaboratory Against Hate, an academic center formed in response to the Pittsburgh synagogue tragedy in October 2018, I was scheduled to meet the leaders involved in conceptualizing the center. Jerry Cohon, whom I mistakenly called “Jared” in our first exchanges, was one of those leaders. I learned later that he preferred to be called “Jerry” instead of his formal name. This was the first insight into the man that I would come to admire not only for his vast accomplishments as a university president and community leader but also for his humanity and down to-earth nature.

Most of the email exchanges from Jerry came around 5am. I thought that he must be an early riser, as high energy, successful leaders must be. We scheduled our first meeting via email without the help of an administrative assistant. The meeting took place in his office at Wean Hall, which houses the department of engineering and public policy at CMU, in room 5124. Having a background outside of academia, I don’t know what I was expecting but was surprised to find that his office was simple, clean and not full of shelves stuffed with dusty books. It was an office similar in size to other faculty offices on that floor. I wondered to myself what it must be like to transition from being President of a university back to a professor with an office reflecting that change.

To say that I was nervous to meet him for the first time is an understatement. I had to juggle in my mind (and pounding heart) the fact that he was the former President of CMU, the co-founder of a new center that I am leading, and the father-in-law of Josh Donner, the Executive Director of the Shapira Foundation, which funded my role for the next 3 years. The combination of Jerry’s office setting, his calm demeanor, and kindness put me at ease right away. He shared wisdom about organizations to consider strengthening our relationships with and offered to connect me with philanthropic organizations whose missions aligned with ours. I felt heard, supported and appreciated. The experience reminded me of Maya Angelou’s quote, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I’ll never forget how Jerry made me feel valued, and his actions spoke volumes as well. He showed his support by attending our first workshop, where we showcased our progress on research projects with faculty, researchers, students and industry folks. He attended every steering committee (an academic board of advisors) meeting. He connected me with his board colleague at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, who gave us a long list of contacts, and put in a good word about us with the Posner Foundation.

I gained more insight into the father that Jerry was when his son-in-law, Josh, invited me to attend the Alumni Theater Company’s (ATC) show called “Totally Buggin’.” Jerry’s daughter, Hallie Donner, is the Founding Director of the ATC, and the show was a 1990’s-inspired hip hop musical performed by Black youth in grades 6-12. That Hallie would devote her career to supporting underserved youth by providing a creative venue for them to express themselves and be heard says a lot about the values she must have learned and the encouragement she must have received at home.

Jerry’s funeral was held March 19, 2024 at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill. All that I learned in the short time that I knew Jerry was solidified by the eulogies delivered by family and friends reflecting the different aspects of who he was: a beloved grandfather, father, husband, father-in-law, friend, university president, community advocate, and colleague.

One of the stories that stood out in particular was David Shapira’s recollection of Jerry’s leadership in a controversial board decision about the university providing benefits to same sex couples. David Shapira, former Chairman and CEO of Giant Eagle, served as Chair of CMU’s Board of Trustees during Jerry’s tenure as President. Jerry brought this issue before the board believing that it was the right thing for CMU to provide benefits to same sex couples. He was advised to speak to each of the trustees individually. There were board members adamantly against it and voted against it, but it passed with a majority in favor. David recalled that despite their objections, the trustees never quit the board and never withdrew their support for the university, a testament to Jerry’s leadership and his ability to cultivate good relationships.

We at the Collaboratory Against Hate are deeply saddened by Jerry’s passing and express our heartfelt condolences to his family and the community that benefited from his exemplary leadership and compassion.

Thank you, Jerry. You will be missed and never forgotten.

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