Fran Cohen, 83; disability advocate named ‘Unsung Hero’ by Jewish Light

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Frances Joy (Fran) Cohen, longtime occupational therapist, a member of two sports halls of fame and a 2011 recipient of the St. Louis Jewish Light Unsung Heroes recognition, died Sunday, July 22, 2012, “after a courageous 2-and-a-half-year battle with leiomylosarcoma” (cancer of the smooth muscles ad soft tissues), family members said. She was 83 and a resident of the Village of Westwood.

Mrs. Cohen was born in St. Louis on Jan. 27, 1929, the daughter of the late Benjamin and Mollie Weenick.  She was married for 58 years to attorney Gerald Cohen. They had first met on the playground of the Hamilton Elementary School when she was 5 and he was 6. They married on April 4, 1954; Rabbi Jacob Mazur officiated at their wedding.

Mrs. Cohen was a 1946 graduate of Soldan High School.  She worked her way through college, graduating from Washington University with a degree in occupational therapy.  At the age of 63, Mrs. Cohen earned a master’s degree with honors in gerontology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She was an active member of the Jewish Community Center from her childhood years onward.  She taught at the Washington University School of Occupational Therapy for many years, and was an innovative and highly respected occupational therapist for 61 years until her retirement in 2002.

Among her many accomplishments as an occupational therapist was working with patients at the old Firman Desloge Hospital to set up a rooftop garden of flowers and vegetables.  The vegetables were used in cooking therapy and the flowers were gifts to patients at the hospital.  She had developed a fondness for gardening when she planted a Victory Garden during World War II.  

At the old Truman Restorative Center, a public nursing home, Mrs. Cohen started a GED program; her oldest student was 85.

In an interview when she was named an Unsung Hero by the Jewish Light, Mrs. Cohen recalled that she  grew up “alongside the Central West End, just across from the Hamilton School.  Growing up, I was sort of a jock and a tomboy.  I would walk from my house to Forest Park, where I would ice skate or go horseback riding.”  At the JCC, when it was still called the Young Men’s/Women’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), Mrs. Cohen honed her considerable natural athletic skills.  At Washington University, she played on the  women’s tennis team and also took part in field hockey and racquetball.  Through the years, she enjoyed swimming, golf, yoga and Pilates.

Mrs. Cohen’s athletic abilities were recognized with her induction into two sports halls of fame.  In 1970, she was the first International Women’s Racquetball Singles Champion, and in recognition of that accomplishment she was inducted into the Missouri Racquetball Hall of Fame, according to her longtime friend, Jean Cavender, director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum.  “Fran was like a surrogate mother to me, and her passing is a tremendous loss to the entire community,” Cavender said.

Mrs. Cohen was also inducted into the JCC’s St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2011, the same year she was named an Unsung Hero.

In 1996, Mrs. Cohen and Joan Lipkin, playwright and artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company, co-founded the DisAbility Project, a collaboration of individuals that develops performance materials around the culture of disability.

“It would be difficult for me to adequately express my gratitude to Fran and my grief at losing such a beloved colleague and friend of so many years,” said Lipkin. “Fran was an indefatigable advocate for people with disabilities and realized what a profound impact we could have through performance and civic dialogue…We will miss her very much and dedicate our upcoming season to Fran.”

Mrs. Cohen was also active with the local Arthritis Foundation and an advocate for reproductive rights through her service on the board of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, in addition to many other activities and causes.

Funeral services were held Tuesday at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Congregation, where Rabbi Mordecai Miller officiated.  Rabbi Miller’s remarks were accompanied by tributes by daughter Patricia Cohen, granddaughter Katie Cohen, niece Jane Schultz and son-in-law Benjamin Levine.  Burial was at B’nai Amoona Cemetery, 930 North and South Road.

Survivors include her husband, Gerald Cohen; two daughters, Patricia Cohen of St. Louis and Deborah Cohen of Louisville, Ky.; two sons, Marc Cohen of Los Angeles and Roger Cohen of Creve Coeur; two sisters, Lois Sloofman and Beverly Schultz, both of Creve Coeur; a brother, Lawrence Weenick of University City; and eight grandchildren.

Donations preferred to the DisAbility Theater Project, the National Leiomyoscarcoma Foundation, NARAL, Washington University School of Occupational Therapy or Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Congregation.