The fact that this website exists today is a tribute to the influence of Herb Cohen, a legendary figure in the history of Camp Saginaw. Herbie devoted over 40 years of his life to Saginaw, many of them as Boys Camp Director. For the increasing number of Saginaw Senior Alumni who never knew Herb, this is my attempt to bring him to life and explain his importance to all of us who knew him.
In my mind, Herbie was a South Philly, jovial, athletic, overweight cherub. He never took a course in leadership or sensitivity training, but his instinctive qualities made him a well-respected leader of counselors who came from a wide array of economic and social backgrounds.
Herbie was a bachelor for most of his life until he met and married his beautiful Lillian. While Herbie had no children of his own, he certainly had a very large family because he adopted all of us.
What was his secret? Well, when you worked for Herbie, you just didn’t want to let him down. He was a straight shooter and always treated you with respect even when he chewed you out. He could appear dignified when dressed as Nelle the Belle in the Nero Shapiro skit, even when he fell through the old wooden stage of the Dell when one of his ballet leaps was too much for the aged floor. His sense of humor was his secret weapon.
He could short circuit tense situations with an aside that brought down the house. Once I was in a lower camp counselor pagoda with Herb when Mike, a counselor, came running in, yelling how he was going to kill his particularly disturbing camper. Herbie calmly and characteristically replied, “Nothing personal Mike,” and then asked him to coordinate the mailing of the kid’s body parts back to his parents so they all arrived at the same time. Mike grudgingly dissolved in laughter, and then he and Herb discussed how they best could help the camper adjust to the bunk routine.
A more subtle influence of Herbie came from his affectionate nature. His smile, handshake, and even the crazy mailings we would receive from him in the off season endeared him to us. We would open our envelopes and find tiny pictures of his students, ads for over weight camps, and even depilatory creams.
The last time I saw Herb was at a Baltimore reunion at Woodholme Country Club. I had heard he wasn’t feeling well and, when we parted, he kissed me on the cheek. As I left the club, I realized that kiss said he was dying and had said goodbye to me. That moment has stayed with me my entire life.
It is usually asserted that men, unlike women, are less likely to bond and maintain social networks. It is then quite remarkable that so many of the campers and counselors who came under Herb’s influence maintained their relationships for almost fifty years. As one former camper said, “Herb is the glue that holds us together”. That is why Herb was so special to all of us and why his life at Saginaw sets the foundation for this website.
Hank Aberman, Zeus II
In the summer of 2001 Saginaw held a dedication of the Herb Cohen Coliseum on Lower Field to honor the memory of Herbie who had passed away in December of 2000. The photo below is an assemblage of many of Herbie’s disciples who had come to honor his legacy at the facility dedication in June of 2001.
As part of this celebration of his life Lillian Cohen provided a cache of tribute notes and letters she had received in the wake of his passing.
Through these tributes we can appreciate the influence he had on the lives of so many generations of Saginaw men and women.