YAM Notes: March/April 2018

By Martin M. Snapp, Jr.

Ron Meister claims to be transitioning from partner to sage at his law firm, but he seems to be busier than ever. Last year he delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the C. S. Forester Society in Greenwich, England, a literary biography of Horatio Hornblower’s second-in-command, Mr. Bush. The year before, he delivered another paper when the society met in Stockholm. He also coordinated observer visits to military commission hearings at Guantanamo Bay (in his capacity as chair of the National Institute of Military Justice), and won his campaign for a second four-year term as town justice in his hometown in Westchester County by the paper-thin margin of 5,565 to zero. . . . Meanwhile, David Corcoran, who narrowly missed the deadline for submitting his essay to our 50th reunion class book, has written one anyway, and it’s quite compelling. If you’d like to read it, e-mail him.

Alas, the rest of the news is sad: Neil Cohen died of complications from pneumonia on May 8, 2017. A renowned prosecutor and expert on evidence, criminal law, and criminal procedure, Neil began teaching law at the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1972 and taught his final class just two weeks before his death as a visiting professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. He was the Distinguished Service Professor of Law and W. P. Toms Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee College of Law, and author of many legal texts that are still in use today. After his retirement from the University of Tennessee he spent nearly every fall semester teaching at Brooklyn Law School.

According to the Marin Independent Journal, “Students almost unanimously described him as ‘tough, demanding, funny, completely fair, and one of the best law professors’ they’ve had. His unpredictable theatrics captured his students’ attention: staging bloody homicides, gunfights, and pat-downs of students (some of whom were hiding weapons), all to prepare his students to go out in the world to defend and prosecute justice. No one believed more strongly in our constitutional protections, fairness in sentencing, and the right to competent counsel.”

Neil had many interests and eccentricities, including barbecuing (He was a serious chef, contest judge, and aficionado); rescuing, collecting and wearing hats from all over the world that he found in the street; and writing all the content for a satirical news site (www.sortofthenews.com) he founded. He once invited any and all others who shared the name Neil Cohen to a dinner in New York, and a few—most unknown to each other—came. He loved working in his garden, rooting for the University of Tennessee football team, and playing tennis and throwing a baseball with his sons.

After he retired from his post at Tennessee, he and his wife Riva moved to San Rafael, California, where he became a fervent fan of the San Francisco Giants. He was renown as “The Bochy of Bocce” as he captained his bocce ball team, the Matzoh Balls. But his greatest joy was being Papa to his grandchildren—exchanging riddles and jokes and hugging and kissing them in his big, warm embrace.

Nine years ago I quoted a sweet, funny, affectionate piece by NPR’s Scott Simon recalling the man he called “Captain Neil,” who was his summer camp counselor at Camp Indianola when he was 12: “At a time when 12-year-old boys were wondering how to be men, Neil Cohen was the best possible example. He was smart, funny, honest, and fair. He taught us how to sing ‘Bulldog, bulldog, bow-wow-wow, Eli Yale!’ He bought me my first New York Times (back when the papers would arrive three days later in the Midwest). He read sections of the political novel that I wrote over the summer when I was 12 and indulged me with serious comments. The fact that I became a journalist and novelist, and so many in our cabin became lawyers, might have something to do with the encouragement and example of Neil Cohen. I just wonder: Did being our counselor persuade Captain Neil to devote his life to prosecuting criminals?”

“I recall Marty sharing the radio interview of ‘Captain Neil’ a few years ago and thinking, ‘Yup, that’s Neil,’” says Andy Delbaum, who roomed with him freshman year. “Neil was ebullient, boastful (‘the world’s greatest lover’), from Centralia (‘the center of the US, if not the universe’), in a self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek way, with a palpable joie de vivre. In addition, he put up with my immaturity as a 16-year-old roommate, and was often supportive in subtle ways. We were in nearby rooms the three subsequent years in Morse. Very different academic interests, but a friendship which remained a significant anchor for me. We lost contact after graduation, which, of course, I now regret greatly. Just a hollow feeling in my gut reading the news.”

My deepest sympathy to Riva, their kids and grandkids, and his dog Henry. Donations can be made in Neil’s name to the ACLU or the United Nations Syrian Refugee Program.

It’s a gross understatement to say guys like Neil are absolutely irreplaceable—and we’ve lost so many who fit that description—but at least there’s some small comfort in knowing that, contrary to the words of the song, they are not “forgotten with the rest” and never will be as long as there’s someone left to carry their memory in his or her heart. Like Jim Lavery, who died in 2015 but is still honored every day by his daughter Megs, who was very close to her dad and frequently posts on Facebook about what a great father he was and how much she misses him. Megs has just gotten engaged to her boyfriend Chris Kelly, which would have pleased Jim greatly, and they’ve already set the date: October 6. And in the best something-old-something-new-something-borrowed-something-blue tradition, she’s going to wear Jim’s Yale Class of ’67 ring when she walks down the aisle. Says she: “It’s something old and something blue!”