Columnist Irwin J. Cohen introduces himself to the readers.
Permit me to introduce myself and this column.
I chose the name of the column as sometimes you’ll find me wise, and at times you may find me otherwise.
Since there’s been and are a couple of more accomplished and taller Irwin Cohens in the area, I’ll tell you about this one.
I’m Irwin J. and the only one that has a Detroit Tiger World Series ring. My driver’s license tells me that I’m 80, though, I still don’t believe it. But it’s an advantage as I lived through and experienced more historical chapters in my life than most of you.
I was born in the 12th Street area and lived in the Dexter and Northwest neighborhoods before moving to Oak Park over a half-century ago. I started nursery school in 1945 when the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah opened as a Day School at Dexter and Cortland. I quickly became an outstanding student — every time class started, I was out standing somewhere.
I was only 7 in May 1948 but vividly remember the Yeshiva busing us to the Central High School grounds on Linwood and being part of the more than 20,000 celebrating the State of Israel’s rebirth. The older boys were dancing and singing amidst the blowing of shofars while skywriters carefully crafted the white Star of David against the beautiful blue background of the sky.
The following year was a big event in the Orthodox community as the Young Israel building on Dexter and Fullerton opened under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Samuel Prero. But it was more than a shul. It was also a youth center for all stripes of Jews. There was a room for a junior congregation, a billiard room with a pingpong table and a television.
I was there with friends on Sunday afternoons to watch Hopalong Cassidy while my parents and their friends would go Tuesday night to watch the Milton Berle Show. A couple of years later, the Y.I. started a Boy Scout troop led by Marvin Engel that kept us busy on many a Sunday marching from Dexter to Linwood.
One summer Saturday night, we joined numerous other Scout troops in a place most of us had never been before. It was called Southfield. The grounds were vast and empty, no buildings anywhere, just our tents. There was a big sign nearby proclaiming that a big shopping center called Northland would be built on the site. Who would want to come here in the middle of nowhere to shop? we thought.
Becoming a Grownup
After sharing high school between the Yeshiva and Central High School, and a bit of junior college, business school and IBM school, I landed a job with Wayne County on the second floor of the City-County Building on Jefferson and Woodward. My desk had a great panoramic view of the Detroit River and Windsor. Around the time of the Kennedy assassination, I decided to join the Army Reserves before being drafted for two years.
I did my basic training in Fort Knox, Ky., where I became, to my surprise, a marksman, and the best one in the unit. Then it was on to three months in Fort Dix, N.J., where I was pulled out of training to be a radio relay operator and then a chaplain’s assistant. I summer-camped in exotic places like Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana and Fort Sheridan, Illinois.
When I finished my six-year military service in 1969, I missed being ordered around so I got married. She was from Rochester, N.Y., but living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side when we met. I soon learned you could take the person out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out of the person. It’s 52 years later, and she’s still my sergeant.
My Baseball Career
In 1973, with heavenly assistance, I entered the baseball field through a chance phone call to a radio host who invited me to be on his next program. That led me to other radio and television appearances, and Joe Falls to turn over some of his sports columns to me at times. After writing a bit for a publication Denny McLain was fronting for, I founded a national monthly baseball publication and met many of yesterday’s heroes and stars of the time. The Tigers offered me a front office position at the end of 1983, which I accepted on the condition that I didn’t work on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.
I experienced the highest of highs when I was awarded a 1984 World Series ring with my name on it along with a check for a World Series share (a far lesser amount than the players received, but more than I expected).
I experienced the lowest of lows eight years ago when our daughter passed away from cancer at the age of 41. She was our only child and left seven children, the youngest was only 3 at the time. You never get over it and have to deal with the reality of the situation. Maybe I can deal with it easier as I believe she was reborn into eternal life.
Why do bad things happen to good people? For those who are not believers, there are no answers. For those who believe, there are no questions.
As some of you know, I wrote several history books on Detroit, its Jewish communities and the Tigers and their ballparks. While wintering in Florida, I speak to groups on other subjects, including the Roosevelts, U.S. presidents and the Jews, and “Jewish Stories You Never Heard Before.”
Many of the aforementioned stories will find their way into this column over the course of time.
May your eyes always read Wise & Otherwise.