Volume 79, Number 5 | July 8 - 14, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Bob Cohen, a longtime N.Y.U. liaison, is dead at 78

By Albert Amateau

An hour or so after attending a meeting involving the two communities most important to him — the Village and New York University — Bob Cohen died suddenly at home on Mercer St. on Wednesday night July 1 at the age of 78.

A member of the N.Y.U community-relations office for more than 20 years, Robert I. Cohen continued to serve the university as a consultant and liaison to the Village after he retired a few years ago.

His last hours were spent at a neighborhood task force meeting with his N.Y.U. colleague Gary Parker and City Councilmember Alan Gerson regarding the university’s co-generation project on Mercer St.

“He had the final word,” said Gerson, recalling the meeting, “and he was his usual witty self. I’m going to miss him. He was a friend and advisor — full of life and a great sense of humor. He loved the community and he gave his all to it.”

Lynne Brown, N.Y.U. senior vice president for government and community affairs, recalled working with him over the years.

“I relied on him in countless ways,” she said. “He was a fixture not just at N.Y.U. but also in the Village, a human bridge between our academic community and our neighborhood, who always believed we were more that merely compatible — that N.Y.U. and the Village were made for each other and we belonged together.”

Brown recalled that local elected officials, their staff members and community leaders relied on Cohen’s knowledge of the neighborhood and the university.

“Bob was a New Yorker through and through,” she said. “He spoke with a New Yorker’s cadences and with a New Yorker’s sense of humor, sureness and street smarts. He knew our neighborhood’s history, its values and its needs, and he made sure we knew that, too, and made N.Y.U. a better institution for it. … He was, as we say in New York, a mensch.”

Tony Juliano, chairperson of the Greenwich Village - Chelsea Chamber of Commerce, said, “Citizens like Bob are rare and our community is richer for having known him.”

At his funeral on July 3 his wife of 21 years, Barbara, assured the 300 people gathered at Riverside Memorial Chapel on W. 76th St. that Bob died without pain or suffering. She recalled meeting Bob 25 years ago when she was a guest in an unfamiliar Fire Island home and Bob rescued her from a locked bathroom.

“I yelled ‘Help’ and Bob heard,” she recalled, adding that he always responded to calls for help. “If he told you ‘Yes,’ you could consider it done,” she said.

Robert Cohen was born in the South Bronx to Belle and Louis Cohen. His father was prominent in the Democratic Party and an avid sports fan, who took Bob and his brother, Joe, to every conceivable sport event. Bob attended high school in the Bronx and the University Heights campus of N.Y.U. A knee injury as a teenager was severe enough to get him an early discharge from the Army.

He worked in advertising for a while and then for a number of city and state agencies, including the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which built and operated the New York Coliseum at Columbus Circle. He also worked for the Robert Moses-led city authority that built and ran the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

For several years he was on the district staff of Assemblymember William Passannante, running the district office then on Waverly Place. Gerson recalled Bob Cohen mentoring him when he served as a high school intern in the assemblyman’s district office.

By 1990 when Passannante left the Assembly, Bob Cohen had joined the N.Y.U. community-relations office.

“It was the job he liked best,” his wife said. As part of his work at the university, he started programs for senior citizens and organized a toy drive for children of the Lower East Side, she recalled.

He was a regular participant in the N.Y.U./Community Board 2 Children’s Halloween Parade around Washington Square Park.

“I’ll always remember him leading the parade dressed in purple as Merlin the magician, with that floppy pointed hat,” recalled Lois Rakoff, a past resident president of the Bleecker Area Merchants’ and Residents’ Association.

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