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Eulogy for D. Walter Cohen, DDS, Chancellor Emeritus of the Drexel College of Medicine


July 2, 2018

Good morning. I’m John Fry, the President of Drexel University. Thank you, Claire, for the opportunity to bring condolences and gratitude from the entire Drexel community.

Walter Cohen moved in so many circles … a pioneer in dental medicine … medical education … women in medicine … serving the underserved … Jewish life … philanthropy … and more. And we knew him as a major force in every area in which he worked. He was deeply admired, respected and revered: a visionary thinker; a paragon of energy; and a builder of bridges. But more than that, Walter was beloved. He was loved because he was a gentle, humane man who touched so many lives, including my own, in unexpected and profound ways.

Walter first came to Drexel some 20 years ago … when the University took over management of a troubled medical school, which Walter himself had saved. Many were skeptical, but Walter was squarely behind Drexel from the outset. And his faith helped bring many others along. Today — thanks in large part to Walter’s confidence and steadfast commitment — we have the vibrant Drexel College of Medicine, one of the most diverse medical schools in the country, and a school devoted to the humane practice of medicine.

We are so proud to have had Walter serve as Chancellor Emeritus of the College of Medicine. And we are so fortunate to have had the benefit of him as a teacher, advisor, mentor, and inspiration to generations of students and faculty.

This extraordinary service followed a distinguished career of 35 years at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. At Penn, Walter established the Department of Periodontics, while also conducting original research and partnering in a private practice. He has been recognized many times for his professional accomplishments, and called a “giant of dental medicine.” In academia, his gift was that of an “interdisciplinarian” — a too-rare ability to bring disciplines together in a synergistic and collegial way. Simply put, Walter had an unusual ability to understand and articulate the big picture and then find a way to paint a better one.

Here are just a few examples of his impact at Penn Dental, which has also had a major influence at Drexel Medicine: As a faculty member at Penn, he studied the effects of diabetes and pregnancy on periodontal tissues. At Drexel, we have an annual lectureship in diabetes generously established by Walter. Walter was among the first to call attention to the connection between oral and general physical health. Drexel has co-sponsored the first continuing medical education conference promoting the integration of dental and medical wellness.

Walter is the father of Drexel’s nationally renowned Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM), which supports women faculty from across the country in rising through the ranks to department chair, dean or president. And he has been a steadfast supporter of Vision 2020, and inspired the annual Woman One Award, which has raised over $3 million and supports scholarships for over 30 current and former women scholars at the College of Medicine.

But Walter's interests were not limited to academic medicine. He was deeply concerned about the health of disadvantaged people locally and around the world. At Drexel, he was one of the strongest and earliest supporters … of our Dornsife School of Public Health, and the Sheller 11th Street Family Health Services Center in North Philadelphia. When Walter decided to support something, you got the whole package: Thoughtful advisor, expert fund-raiser and generous donor. The Dornsife School and Sheller Family Center are unquestionably stronger and more vibrant because they had Walter Cohen at their side.

Among the most enduring connections fostered by Walter are those he built with Israel. In 1985, an endowed chair in periodontal research was established in his honor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Then, in 1997, the D. Walter Cohen Middle East Center for Dental Education opened at Hebrew University, which offered an exchange program between dentals students at Hebrew University and Palestinian students at the Al-Quds School of Dentistry in Jerusalem. That Center has the formidable goal of building peace and understanding through scientific projects, symposia and training programs.

Walter’s work with Hebrew University inspired and laid the foundation for some significant research collaborations that Drexel has established there. We created the Drexel-Hebrew University Research Hub, which joins our biomedical researchers with scientists at Hebrew’s Institute for Drug Research. I’ve had the incredible privilege of visiting with our colleagues in Jerusalem, and all spoke of the outsize impact Walter has had, both as a colleague and as a friend.

Another aspect of Drexel that Walter cared deeply about is Judaism and the Jewish students at our University. Walter was a staunch advocate for, and generous donor to, our Judaic Studies Program. And he was one of the first major donors to our Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life … now the beautiful home of Drexel Hillel. It opened in 2016 — just as we were celebrating Walter’s 90th birthday.

When I first came to Drexel in 2010, Walter immediately embraced me, and over the last eight years bestowed upon me a series of gifts which I will forever hold dear: The gift of his presence, and the gifts of his empathy, compassion and appreciation from someone who walked in my shoes and gave me the strength and encouragement to find my way as the new leader of Drexel.

Walter made a huge difference in the lives of so many. And the Drexel University community counts itself incredibly blessed to have known this extraordinary man. And in holding Walter close to our hearts, we know we were in good company — as this gathering today bears witness: Claire … Jane and Martin … Amy … Joanne and Aaron … Rachel, Lauren, Michael, Benjamin and Deborah … and great-grandchildren Braedan and Addison … I want to extend my deepest sympathy upon your loss.

May his memory always be a blessing.