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Florence Cohen, lifelong activist, dies at 97

Florence Cohen, 97, a lifelong civil rights and community activist and wife of the late City Councilman David Cohen, died Saturday, Jan. 10, at her assisted-living residence in Cherry Hill, family members said.

Florence Herzog Cohen
Florence Herzog CohenRead more

Florence Cohen, 97, a lifelong civil rights and community activist and wife of the late City Councilman David Cohen, died Saturday, Jan. 10, at her assisted-living residence in Cherry Hill, family members said.

Dedicating her life to social justice issues, Mrs. Cohen served as a union organizer, taught social studies, advocated for school integration, and helped women in prison. She may have been best known as the tireless chief of staff for her husband from 1980 to 1996, when he was on City Council.

"She was always a voice of the oppressed and a voice of conscience and our inspiration," said her daughter, Sherrie Cohen, a lawyer and at-large candidate for City Council.

"She'd be typing on her little mechanical typewriter until 3 a.m.," Cohen said, "and still rising by 7 a.m. to begin a full day of activity with my father."

Born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., Mrs. Cohen earned a bachelor's degree in economics from George Washington University and a master's in education from the University of Pennsylvania. She worked for New York City's welfare department and then for the former Rural Electrification Administration in Washington, which helped get electricity out to farmers. She then became a union organizer and married in 1946, taking a break in 1949 to raise the family's four children.

Mrs. Cohen cofounded the Ogontz Area Neighbors Association in 1959 and served many years as its president, working to create unity in a racially mixed neighborhood. She taught social studies for a short time at Philadelphia's Barratt Junior High and Girls High. In the 1970s, she taught at Community College of Philadelphia and also served as project director of the Pennsylvania Program for Women and Girl Offenders. She chaired the Philadelphia chapter of the New Democratic Coalition from 1969 to 1972.

As a young woman, she attended a rally calling on the U.S. to invade Nazi Germany in 1938, said her son, State Rep. Mark Cohen (D., Phila.). She and her husband joined Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington in 1963. The Cohens advocated for school integration in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, seeking changes in school boundaries.

In 1965, Mrs. Cohen held hearings for Philadelphians who used to live in Mississippi to discuss voter intimidation. Mrs. Cohen participated in a march for peace at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where her husband was a delegate.

She became so prominent that when her husband ran for mayor in 1971, a Philadelphia Daily News columnist wrote: "Why not Mrs. Cohen for mayor? No demure housewife."

"She was so focused and committed to social change and making society work," said former City Councilman Angel Ortiz, who met Mrs. Cohen when he moved to Philadelphia in 1976. "She was like a walking handbook of political history and movements and strategies."

In her later years, she created a chapter of Grannies for Peace at the Watermark retirement community at Logan Square, organizing meetings and bringing in speakers.

"She was active throughout her whole life, from the time she was a teenager to the time she was an octogenarian," her son Mark said.

Even at 88, she vied to be the candidate in a special election to finish her husband's term on Council after he died in 2005. The party instead chose William Greenlee, who was elected and remains on Council.

Surviving, in addition to Mark and Sherrie are a son, Denis, a judge for Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas; a daughter, Judy Minches, a freelance reporter and blogger, of Cherry Hill; and six grandchildren.

A funeral will be held at noon on Wednesday, Jan. 14, at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks at 6410 N. Broad St. in Philadelphia.

Donations may be made to Bread & Roses Community Fund, 1315 Walnut St., Suite 1300, Philadelphia, Pa. 19107. Shiva will be Wednesday evening at the home of Mark and Mona Cohen, Thursday evening at the home of David and Judy Minches, and Saturday evening at the home of Sherrie Cohen and her partner, Virginia Gutierrez.