Emeritus History Department Professor Bill Cohen passed away on September 7, 2020. Professor Emeritus and former History Department Chair Marc Baer shares his memories of the late Professor below.

“I am currently revising an essay on Herbert Butterfield, perhaps the most important Christian historian of the twentieth century. My Ph.D. supervisor in graduate school did his doctorate at Cambridge University, working under Butterfield. My mentor repeated a story several times, a conversation in which Butterfield told him he was never satisfied with something he wrote until the fifteenth draft. And so, when I taught the History department seminar I, of course, repeated the story for my students.

Professor William Cohen—his colleagues only knew him as Bill—was the Hope History department’s Herbert Butterfield. Bill not only invented the department’s seminar in the 1970s, but so left his imprint on it that we often referred to it as the “Cohen seminar.” Bill cast a large shadow: Those who later taught the seminar, Professors Johnson, Gibbs and Baer, and now Janes, tried as hard as we could to emulate our colleague, both in terms of his rigor and emphases—getting structure, mechanics, and especially footnotes just right. Hence our departmental tee shirt, seen here; notice the footnote.

Departmental tee shirt, inspired by Bill Cohen.

Bill, who retired in 2001, died on September 7, 2020. During his time at Hope he taught his students in all his history courses and his colleagues to understand why standards matter. In my case when I taught the seminar, as I sat in my office thinking about a topic like evaluating evidence I would be addressing in a few hours, my mind would invariably take me to, “How would Bill have done this?” My guess is that my colleagues who taught the seminar did the same. Bill’s shadow, like Butterfield’s will last a very long time.

Reading the reminiscences of faculty in other departments brought smiles to our faces, as we lament that Bill is no longer with us. What they could not convey, but I hope I have, is that Bill took his calling as a scholar—getting the past right—so seriously that he never let us, his departmental colleagues and his students, forget what that meant. At a moment in our national history when truth no longer seems crucial to many people, Bill’s legacy matters more than ever.” – Dr. Marc Baer


Bill passed away peacefully on Sept. 7, 2020. He was a proud son of New York, who completed his B.A. at Brooklyn College, his M.A. at Columbia University, and his Ph.D. at New York University. He was a veteran of the United States Army, and served in the intelligence branch during the Korean conflict. He moved to Chicago, where he worked with the late Professor John Hope Franklin at the Center for Urban Studies at the University of Chicago. While there, he published “Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery,” a significant re-examination of Jefferson’s understanding of the institution of slavery.

In 1971, he came to Hope College, and remained a member of the faculty until his retirement in 2001. While at Hope, he published his 1991 monograph, At Freedom’s Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861-1915. He taught generations of Hope College history students in the History Seminar, a rigorous capstone experience which he designed and taught for many years. He also mentored Hope College students who applied for Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships. After his retirement from Hope College, he served as a Fulbright Scholar, teaching American history in Japan. He was a generous colleague, and his work made us all a better scholarly and collegial community. He is survived by his son, Alan (JuHong Lee) , and two daughters, Elizabeth (John Speiser) and Mia (Neal Franklin). He also had three beloved grandchildren, Soren, Miri, and Sonny

A virtual memorial will be held for Bill this Saturday, September 12th, 2020. If you are interested in attending, please email History@Hope.edu to get further details.

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