New Milford to honor 'civic activist and volunteer' Harry Cohen

The chair in which former New Milford attorney Harry Cohen often sat on the front porch of his Bridge Street home and office, overlooking his hometown’s village center, is now vacant.

The community will remember the community advocate, thespian and businessman, who was 98 when he died last month, with a memorial celebration and open house from 1 to 3 p.m. May 25 at 62 Bridge St.

Cohen, an attorney for 64 years, died April 27 at his home, with one of his three sons, David, and his daughter-in-law, Jane, at his side.

“Anywhere we’ve gone, someone has a connection (to Harry),” said Jane, who with her husband had been living part-time with Cohen since his 95th birthday. “There’s always a connection and a story about Harry.”

Cohen was active in town affairs, including civic, political, business and faith pursuits, throughout his lifetime.

He was a co-founder of Temple Sholom and the Little Theater and founder of a photo school, all in New Milford.

“It’s very humbling,” David said, reflecting on his father’s lifetime commitment to and involvement with the community.

Retired local journalist Norm Cummings recalled Cohen as “the quintessential civic activist and volunteer” who for the second half of the 20th century “played a significant role in the community, framing the town into a more interesting place to live. He was instrumental in keeping the community’s history and self-awareness alive.”

Cohen had served in numerous capacities, including president of the Greater New Milford Chamber of Commerce, commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, and member of the New Milford Public Library and New Milford Commission on the Arts.

He also obtained a grant from the Harcourt Foundation with which to establish the Literacy on the Green program and, in the 1960s, worked with the state to get a charter for what would come to be known as the Northville Volunteer Fire Department.

Home and business

Cohen grew up in New Milford, the second youngest of six children and only son of Russian immigrants Samuel and Sarah (Sacartoff) Cohen.

He graduated from New Milford High School in 1938 and started his legal practice in town in 1946, after returning home from World War I.

“It was a quaint town in those years,” Cohen said in an article published in The Spectrum at the time of his retirement in 2010. “We had a more lively town center with three grocery stores.

“When I was 16, I worked at the A & P on Railroad Street,” he said in the article. “I feel very fondly toward New Milford, fond of the people who have always been friendly and outgoing.”

He and his wife, Frances Sperling Cohen, raised three sons, Charles, David and Jerome, in town.

Cohen was regarded for his legal acumen and commitment to his clients.

“He was really a committed lawyer,” said Katherine Webster O’Keefe, an attorney who met Cohen in 1983 when he and his business partner, Murray Kessler, hired her at their law firm.

“He was a dogged advocate for the people,” she said, adding he was often known for being the lawyer one went to “if you were in trouble.”

A year after he opened his practice, Cohen learned of Charlie Robertson’s plans to bring an old Army tank to town.

As an attorney, Cohen worked with him to acquire the tank and then worked with the VFW that decided the tank should be placed on the Green to serve as a veterans’ memorial.

“It was argued not only was it a fitting relic, but also the kids loved it as a plaything,” Cohen wrote in a 2007 letter to the editor.

Religious and artistic

A devout practitioner of the Jewish faith, Cohen was among a small group of a few dozen faithful who in the 1950s met for Friday night services in the Fellowship Room of the First Congregational Church.

Seeing a need for the group to have a permanent home, Cohen joined the late Merrill Golden, Kessler and others to raise funds to build Temple Sholom, which opened in 1971.

“Harry was quite a politician in the best sense of the word,” the late Rev. Russ Ayre said in 2010 of Cohen’s work to build a temple. “He worked for people. He was always trying to do what was best for people and that's hard to come by now.”

Rabbi Ari Rosenberg said he has “heard a great deal” about Cohen in the four years he has been at the Temple. “He is remembered fondly by other founding members of our congregation.”

Cohen’s involvement in the community extended to the arts.

“He was a dynamic person with certain ideas, especially when it came to the arts,” said Marilyn Lieff, who moved to town in 1953 and met Cohen through the Jewish community. “And I think this community is better for having a Harry Cohen.”

George Fletcher agreed. He came to town in 1960 to serve as director of the former New Milford Community Center, which Cohen had been involved in organizing.

“He truly believed in the community center and all aspects of the arts,” said Fletcher. “He had a real passion for it.”

The center evolved into the New Milford Parks & Recreation Department.

In the 1970s, Cohen co-founded The Little Theater in the former Advent Church on Brookside Avenue, having obtained an interest-free loan from then-New Milford Savings Bank to purchase the property.

Over the years, Cohen performed in numerous productions at the theater that eventually became Theatreworks.

He even brought theater to Temple Sholom, Lieff recalled.

Photography was another artistic avenue through which Cohen expressed himself.

At one point, he founded and was president of a photo school in town, which offered workshops and classes for photographers of all skill levels.

“He prided himself in photography and being able to read and capture the essence of whatever or whoever he photographed,” his son David said, noting his father had 20 to 30 cameras.

“He carried his camera everywhere,” Fletcher recalled.

Over the years Cohen submitted letters to the editor to local publications and often stopped by media outlet offices in town to talk with staff about town history and published photographs.

“He enjoyed notoriety but was always giving,” David said, noting his father would “proudly” clip his submissions or articles written about him from newspapers and give them to family.