William and I met in Paris in the fall of 1983. We had each received Fulbright Fellowships that year, William to do research on French cities and I to do research on Paris parks. There were enough common themes in our work that we became friends. Over time our love grew through our courtship and marriage, and I discovered the remarkable qualities of this kind, wise, and modest man. The countless number of people who have written since William passed away has only confirmed that which I have thought all along. William was an extraordinary person.
William's own personal history provides a glimpse into his character and how it was shaped.
World War II was at its height in 1941 when William was born on May 2nd in Jakobstad, Finland. His mother Rosi and his father Walter, as German Jews, had escaped from Germany, she to England and he to Belgium. Family history tells the story of Walter Cohen dressed incognito with a borrowed passport, feigning sleep on the train as it crossed the German border. From England and Belgium Rosi and Walter moved to Finland, where Walter practiced medicine. One year after William was born Walter was sent to a work camp in northern Finland. During this time the Finnish police, in complicity with the Nazis, gathered a group of German Jewish refugees, including the Cohen family, to send them by boat back to German camps. It was Walter's connection with a patient who was a member of the Finnish legislature that saved the family. Through a note on a postcard, Walter managed to have the boat intercepted and 150 lives were saved.
William told this story to his Indiana University history class each year. As he told the story he showed a slide of a passenger list with his name on it. He would sometimes tell the story privately to friends as well. For his history class the story was intended to be a warning of the effects of political evil. For his friends, William told the story to explain in no uncertain terms that he was a very lucky man. He considered every day he lived one more than what he had been dealt.
When William was two his family emigrated to Sweden, where is sister Jane was born, and later, when William was five, the family moved to Ethiopia, where his father worked in a series of mission hospitals and where his sister Helen was born. The Italians were leaving the country as Haile Selassie came into power. As a result of geo-political upheavals, William learned many languages: Swedish and German at home; Amharic in the kitchen and at the market; English and French in school; and Italian in the streets. It was not uncommon for William to speak all six languages during the course of a day. To his friends and colleagues William always joked that he spoke six languages, all with an accent.
When asked to address the French Colonial Historical Society in the spring of 2002, William spoke of his childhood in Ethiopia and how it contributed to him becoming a French colonial historian.
"From the age of five to thirteen I was part of a privileged group of European expatriates. While Ethiopia was not a colony, we lived in what Georges Balandier would have called the "colonial situation." Endowed with more resources than our hosts, we lived a life of privilege in a large stucco house surrounded by servants - six of them to be exact. I attended a French lycée, run by the Alliance française, to promote French language and civilization around the globe. So I was a witness and a beneficiary of the "mission civilisatrice." In 1953 Charles de Gaulle came to Ethiopia on a hunting trip and on a courtesy visit to a fellow exile from his London days, Emperor Haile Selassie. The boy scout troop, of which I was a member at the Lycée français, formed an honor guard for the General. We were under strict orders, if addressed by the honored guest, to say only either "Oui, mon général," or, "Non, mon général." Even though we practiced this routine a whole morning, the General did not address us. He did, however, firmly shake our hands and then sped off."
Due to Ethiopia's high altitude which affected Walter Cohen's health, the family moved back to Sweden. William was thirteen at the time. The family moved from one small town to another, finally establishing themselves in Lesjöfors, where William attended high school. And it was here where William suffered the greatest tragedy in his life, the death of his father, when William was sixteen.
In a strange twist of history, William's great grandfather had served in the U. S. Civil War in Texas. For this reason, Rosi's father was permitted to emigrate to the United States during World War II. Since her father was living in California, and Rosi had no family in Sweden, Rosi decided to move the family to the United States.
North Hollywood, California, was an odd place for the family to land. But there Rosi purchased the duplex house in which she still lives today. Other than that investment and the rent it brought in, there was little money on which to live. But as was typical of William's eternal optimism, he was not to be daunted. Having watched the television quiz show "The Big Game" he found he could answer all the questions, and he decided to try out for the show. He wrote to the producer, who responded by inviting William to his house to discuss the matter in more detail. Though no other teenager had been on the show, William convinced the producer of his worth, and the producer agreed to try him out. He won for three weeks, and with his winnings he bought his family a car, and he renovated part of the garage as a bedroom for himself.
William's memory of his first days at North Hollywood High School were the ridicule he received for: (1) wearing shorts when chinos were in; (2) standing up when a teacher came into the room; and (3) riding an old moped to school. But with time he found kindred spirits, gravitating towards others like himself, bookish and intellectual.
William always said that it was the loss of his father, in particular, that gave him a sense of urgency to his life. He felt that one could not waste a single day. Perhaps it was this sense of urgency that guided him, first to finish high school a semester early, and then with a scholarship from Pomona College to complete his undergraduate education in three years. At Stanford University he was the youngest in the History Department to have received a PhD.
As a member of the debate team, William represented Pomona one time in Chicago. On the day he was to return to California a fellow student approached him with a request. The student had lost his own airline ticket in a poker game and was unable to fly back to California as scheduled. Fortunately the student had an uncle nearby who offered him an old car to take back to school. Would William consider sharing the drive back? It was the middle of winter, and neither possessed more than twenty dollars, but William, sympathetic to the other student's predicament, agreed to sell his own plane ticket for gas money and to share the long drive back. The car didn't have a radio, so it was not until they arrived three days later in Pomona that they discovered that the plane William was to have taken had crashed with no survivors. William always said he was a lucky man. But I would add that his survival was perhaps a gift in exchange for the kindness he had shown.
Upon graduating from Pomona, William attended Stanford, where he completed his PhD. in French history. It was at Stanford where William met his first wife Habiba Suleiman, a fellow history student. They were married shortly after William completed graduate school, and they traveled to Paris and Dakar where William conducted research for his thesis, later published as Rulers of Empire.
On returning to the United States William taught at Northwestern and then took a position in the History Department at Indiana University. Perhaps it was the university's warm welcome or Bloomington's college town atmosphere, a liberal community small in size and large on participation, but William always felt great loyalty to this place. It is here in Bloomington where William's and Habiba's daughters Natalie and Leslie came into their lives. Most likely it was the combination of many things which made him comfortable and able to do his work here.
In addition to his teaching, William continued his research in French colonial history, publishing in 1980 The French Encounter with Africans, which the historian James LeSueur has stated, "clearly established Cohen's reputation as one of the world's leading historians of modem France and European colonialism." With his marvelous sense of the absurd, in his address to the French Colonial Historical Society, William stated:
" After writing a study of the colonial administrators in Africa I came to contemplate what place Africans had in the French imagination; how had the French thought of Africans during the centuries they had been in contact with them?...
"The French Encounter with Africans was translated into French and was reviewed on the front page of Le monde. The reviewer was not happy with the book; he was in fact incensed. Every paragraph of the review started with the words, 'Ce professeur américain prétend...' How could an American dare to suggest that France's views of Africans was anything but enlightened? Cohen, the review declared, 'was an ennemi acharné de la culture française...'
"I? I, who can quote at length verses of poetry by Victor Hugo? I, the lover and connoisseur of cheeses? Unlike General de Gaulle, who was driven to distraction by France's many cheeses - 'How can one govern a country with 300 cheeses?', he asked - I have instead been delighted in the variety and richness of la France gastronomique. Reading the review, I imagined myself proscribed, banished from the country I love."
In 1983-84, between two terms as Chair of the History Department, William spent a year in Paris researching his new study of urban France in archives and at the beautiful and quirky Bibliotheque Nationale. William and I first met one evening down the street from the BN, at the fountain outside the Comedie Francaise. I have a vivid memory of William wearing a trench coat, his Finnish fisherman's cap, and smoking a pipe. He greeted me with his great smile and twinkling eyes, a familiar sight to anyone who has known him.
I found William to be absolutely charming, and we laughed a lot about ridiculous situations. Stories dealing with the French les fonctionnaires was a popular theme, as were the absurd rules of the Bibliotheque Nationale. William had this amazing energy and enthusiasm that was infectious. His keen intelligence encompassed an incredible breadth of subject matter. As our friend Richard Stryker has said, "He was a multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-lingual being, who crossed borders of all kinds effortlessly as a natural dimension of life."
In the four years to follow, William and I shared our life together in France, living in different cities each summer: Lyons, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Marseilles. In the fall of 1987 we decided to marry, and we were welcomed into each other's family. I then made Bloomington my new home, and with the birth of our daughter Laurel in 1992 we became more domestic in our habits. William was the cook in the family, and with time he became quite good. Each year he and Michael Berkvam prepared a delicious Indian dinner with no fewer than sixteen dishes. And over these years William expanded his signature hat collection. He typically wore his fisherman's cap or fedora, but the fez was a hit for the July 4th parade.
William was so sweet with Laurel. When she was a baby to get her back to sleep at night he would prop her against his right shoulder and pace the room loudly singing, more lamentation than song and certainly off-key, "My father knew Lloyd George, and Lloyd George knew my fa-a-a-ther!", until, exhausted, she finally slept. When she was a little older, and if ill, William would promote Laurel to a special category of human being - she was a "mausi herzchen" or "little mouse" in German, a position that allowed her special privileges.
Having finished college, Leslie lived with us for the year following her graduation. It was a wonderful year for all of us, and it gave Leslie and Laurel an opportunity to cement their sisterhood. William thought it so funny when Laurel at the age of one and a half would go into Leslie's room and close the door so the two could listen and dance to rock music privately. No parents allowed.
In 1998 William completed his book Urban Government and the Rise of the French City. It is a work which reflects tremendous research and depth of knowledge in the development of nineteenth century urban France. William considered the book his major contribution as a historian. And, since he had begun the research for the book the same year we met, there was a personal celebration at its publication for both us.
William made us all laugh. He was the great raconteur, delighting his family and guests with funny stories or jokes about almost anything. When the jokes were really bad we would rate them with a 'D', and Leslie in particular would roll her eyes. It was not unusual for William to laugh so hard, often at his own jokes, that tears came to his eyes. I especially enjoyed overhearing him laugh when he was alone reading the paper or listening to "Prairie Home Companion."
William loved his family, and he found pleasure in taking care of us. In his three daughters are qualities which he cherished deeply. In Natalie, he admired her ability to charm people and to command the attention of a room with her elegant style and enthusiasm, and to make everyone, especially children, comfortable. Speaking five languages himself William felt a kinship with Natalie's innate talent at languages. In Leslie, William always said he found a daughter "with a heart of gold." He was proud of and happy for Leslie finding her way with her work at the Oakland Children's Hospital. Her compassion for others, her ability to remain fair and even tempered, her personal beauty, and her good humor were attributes highly valued by her dad. In Laurel, William found a daughter who has his same intellectual curiosity, a sweet nature, an uncanny ability to pick up on other people's feelings, and a great sense of humor and quick wit. The two of them knew the lines to "I Love Lucy' and Peter Sellers' "Pink Panther" movies by heart, having watched the shows together on numerous occasions.
William was a man who knew himself, a happy man. 2002 in particular was a wonderful year for William. Everything seemed to be going his way. He had great confidence and energy that was fueled by research on his new book The Algerian War in French Memory and Politics. At the time of his death he had just recently returned from the University of Nebraska, where his lecture was very well received and a dinner was given in his honor. He was excited about reactions to his recent articles, and he felt the urgency to complete his book.
Our Sunday mornings were a day of rest in our definition of that word. It was a ritual for William to cook yogurt pancakes, and following breakfast William would read the NY Times, I would garden, and Laurel would play with her friends Marty and Parker from next door. It was a Sunday afternoon on November 24, 2002, after a morning of pancakes and the newspaper, and just after William finished his lecture on the history of Japan for his next morning's class, that he went on the carport roof to sweep the leaves. It was a beautiful "blue sky" day, as Laurel coined the phrase when she was four. And it was from the carport that William fell and passed away ten hours later at 1:30 a.m., November 25th. We are only grateful that he did not suffer; it was all too fast and too massive a head trauma for him to have been aware of the event.
It's been so clear to me from all the kind calls, letters, and visits from our dear family and friends, that William's enormous heart and zeal for life expanded into the lives of an incredible number of people. We are all thankful for having had the unequaled pleasure to know and to love this very fine man. He has taught us that life is too short to waste it, and that we must live each day with honor and with joy.
In memory of William, the Department of History at Indiana University has established a fund to endow a graduate fellowship in his name. The fellowship will support a student studying French or European history. If you wish to contribute to this fund, your gift may be directed to the Indiana University Foundation, P.O. Box 500, Bloomington, IN 47402 with a note stating support for the Cohen Fellowship in History. Of course, you may also contribute to Pomona College in memory of William.