Editor Emeritus celebrates 40 years with the ‘Light’


Only Richard Nixon may have recorded more conversations than Robert A. Cohn. And that’s just possibly. Anyone in the St. Louis Jewish community who has been interviewed by Cohn – and by best guestimates the number tops 6,000 — is familiar with the journalist’s old-school tape recorder.

It’s big and clunky, considering today’s streamline models, and uses standard tape as opposed to mini cassettes or no tape at all, as is the case with modern digital voice recorders. He takes his recorder with him, and uses it, wherever he goes.


Then again, Bob Cohn is old school and that’s one of the many things we love about him. He also has a photographic memory, which makes extracting a quote on any one of his tapes a cinch because he can recall exactly where it was said in the interview.

What you might not know about Cohn, whose official title at the Jewish Light is editor-in-chief emeritus, is that he is celebrating his 40th anniversary with the newspaper today, July 1. That, and the fact that he knows all the words to Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler, and can sing them pretty serviceably.

I got to hear his rendition firsthand on a five-hour car ride last week back to St. Louis from Evanston, Ill, where Cohn and I and a few other Light colleagues were attending the American Jewish Press Association’s annual conference. During the car ride, I also got to ask Cohn, who will turn 70 on Sept. 4, a few questions about his storied career at the Light.

Who was the most interesting person you ever interviewed?

Probably Uri Geller, the Israeli psychic. He demonstrated what appeared to be psychic powers. Not only did he bend a key that belonged to our advertising office, but he also was able to make a duplicate drawing of one done by an audience member that Geller had never seen before.

Who haven’t you interviewed who you would like to in the future?

I would like to interview Tzipi Livni, who was most recently minister of foreign affairs in Israel and Phillip Roth, who is one of my favorite authors. I think I have interviewed most everyone in the Jewish community locally, though I’ll have to give that some thought and see if there is anybody I missed.

We know newspapers are suffering because of competition from TV and the Internet as well as the more recent economic downturn. That aside, what is the biggest change you have witnessed at the Light and among Jewish media in your 40 years?

When I entered the profession, the Jewish media was not held in any kind of high esteem with the exception of two or three really good papers in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Over the years more people came into Jewish media with a solid journalism background and Jewish journalism became more professional and less informal and sloppily edited. That’s been a really good change. The Federation-associated papers such as the Jewish Light (which is now independent but receives about 9 percent of its funding from the Jewish Federation) by and large were not taken seriously and were considered house organs when I began. I think now more of these papers have gained credibility because of the professionalism and expertise of the staff.

You’ve mentored so many. Was there anyone in your career who served as a mentor to you?

I’ve been blessed with several good mentors. My boss before I took the job at the Jewish Light was Lawrence K. Roos, who proved that a person could be the ultimate oxymoron: an honest politician and a liberal Republican. He hired me even though he knew I was a strong Democrat. He always answered letters the same day that he got them. He always treated everyone with respect, especially his competitors. And he modeled very high standards of honesty and integrity. He had strong expectations of the staff but he never asked us to do anything that he himself wouldn’t do. Other mentors were people like Al Fleishman (of Fleishman-Hillard, the worldwide public relations firm) in the Jewish and communications area and Mel Newmark, who was the first president of the Light when I came on board.

You graduated from Washington University and went on to receive your law degree from there. You told me that when you first took the job at the Light 40 years ago your wife, Barbara, wasn’t all that thrilled. Has she come around?

Barbara certainly realizes how fulfilling this career has been and how much it has meant to me. I think it came as a shock to her that someone with a law degree prepared to go into the practice of law or even public relations would become editor of a Jewish newspaper for all these years. She didn’t envision that happening. I can understand that. But yes, she has definitely come around to appreciating it.

Why did you decide not to practice law?

I did get a law degree with every intention of practicing law and I do retain my law license. But I think my true calling was in writing and journalism although I don’t for a minute regret having a law background because it has served me well in my capacity at the Light.

You’re going to be 70 in a few months, which is a time when typically people slow down. Trust me, I am not suggesting this but do you see yourself retiring any time soon and/or do you have other projects you would like to pursue in the future?

Al Fleishman once said to me, “Bob, the day you retire is the day you really get busy” and he’s right. Some weeks at the Light I have more articles in the paper than when I ran it and I love that. There may come a point through the aging process and fatigue as well as a desire to try some new things that I may want to pursue a couple of book ideas I have. I do have three wonderful in-town grandchildren and two grandchildren in Maine who I love spending time with. I’m certainly keeping my options open but it’s nice to have an office to go to and to have weekly responsibilities. It helps to keep me mentally alert.