Helen Herz Cohen
Helen Herz Cohen died in Charlottesville, Virginia on March 23, 2006. She was 93.
In 1938, Helen Herz Cohen, a 26-year-old from Manhattan, became Director of Camp Walden in Denmark, Maine. Cohen had spent her summers working at the camp as a counselor and then head counselor before being offered the position of Director. Her camping philosophy was that by offering girls a variety of skills in various areas—sports, the arts, acting—one could nurture their sense of independence. She evaluated her staff, and her self, on the ability to increase a girl's confidence and her feelings of self-worth. In 1969, Cohen came up with "The Main Idea," in which she kept Camp Walden open after the camp season ended and invited "economically-deprived girls" from rural Maine and inner cities to take part in the camping experience. Today, 120 girls age nine to 14 continue to sign up each August to enjoy the enriching benefits of The Main Idea.
Cohen won numerous awards honoring her achievements in camping, was interviewed by Barbara Walters on national TV, and was a lifelong leader in the American Camping Association. To truly understand Cohen's mentoring ability, however, it is most helpful to hear directly from one of the girls that she inspired.
Below is a letter from Ann Gross, who attended Camp Walden in 1969, and sees Cohen as her "first role model" and someone who remained "a model for living for me." The letter was in response to receiving a "Log Drive Pen" from Old Town, Maine that Cohen sent to mark the honor of Gross earning her Masters in Gerontology at age 48.
Dear Miss Herz,
This gift of yours touches me so deeply on levels that transcend years and ages. First, the story of the Log Drive pen is that it was made from a "birch log that was found at the bottom of Cold Steam Pond in northern Maine." (Its artists figure the log was cut between 1840 and 1890.) It was "on its way to the Penobscot River, destined for Old Town or Bangor." And from there it was to be shipped on to England, "like many other birch logs were," the explanation reads. But, along the way, it sank! As the story about the pen goes, since Henry David Thoreau used to drive along Maine near the Penobscot River, perhaps he saw the log.
Well, the log was rescued and from that log was hewn the pen you gave me. Miss Herz—we, your Waldenites, and all the girls from MAIN IDEA, going back to 1969 when you labored to give life and breath to your vision of a camping experience for inner city girls and girls from rural Maine-are all like that log. We could have been just like other girls, sent off to blend in with everyone else, instead of finding our voices and speaking up for fairness and what is right for ourselves and for others. But we had the fortune to be rescued by an artist in Maine, an artist who could look at us and see masterpieces.
When I opened this gift, all of the symbolism and memories and magic came rushing forth.
First of all, my writing skills and experience have you at the beginning of the story, and now all through the story. It was you who insisted I learn to "touch type" that summer of, I think it was 1965. Your steady hand in being clear that I needed to learn to touch type was the beginning of endless possibilities for me. It was the beginning of any kind of serious writing for me. I am the kind of "writer" who composes at the keyboard. And it was you who taught my fingers to take wing and fly. How did you ever know that? How did you ever see that in me? All Waldenites have wondered, "How did she know?" How did you know just what each of us needed? And how did you ever find the time and energy to give it to each of us? These are your secrets only you understand.
And let's not forget about the time you insisted that I have a singing part in Guys and Dolls, (1969, Bunk 12), as you insisted I could sing. And sing I did! In fact, I sang "Fugue for Tinhorns," with Betsy Neisner, as I played "Rusty" in Guys and Dolls. I had solos in the "Fugue," I had parts in all the group songs. I had the time of my life. And I will never get over how you saw something in me that I couldn't see in myself. That you believed in me when I couldn't imagine why. And 24 years later, don't you think I stood up on the Bimah and chanted my Torah portion, and sang the "Hashkivenu," and knew I could do it. I just pretended we were all in the Mission house, singing, "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat." And I remembered how exhilarated I was when I performed in "Fugue for Tinhorns." I was hardly nervous at all!
And then there was my Bunk 12 year, when I stopped waterskiing, and oh yeah, I sort of stopped eating as well, because, as Camp/Council President, I had many worries about my camp and my campers. You zeroed in on my behavior and my sense of responsibility and helped me see that I needed to be back out waterskiing, and I needed to eat, and I needed to have fun and be with my friends, just like I did during all my other summers. And in those moments, you taught me that while leaders have critical responsibilities to others, they also have responsibilities to themselves. You taught me that being a leader doesn't have to mean having no fun. And what kind of leader offers a role model of having no fun, anyway? And then I looked at you, and saw how much fun leaders could have!
But here's the crystallization: This pen represents to me the best a person can be. That you gave it to me to celebrate my milestone, even as I near 50 (yikes!), means the world to me. When I pick up this pen to use it, I will remember so much of what you taught me, not the least of which is to dare to try. To go for it. And I will remember the lessons you taught me of believing in myself, of responsibility and honor and consideration for others and how we must give back, and, of the endless possibilities of creativity. And, oh yes, to have fun…. And these are all themes for me that have reached a critical juncture: I need to believe in myself. I need to write. I need to give back. And I need to cherish my friends and have fun.
Thank you, Miss Herz, from the top and bottom and all places in between, in my heart. I am clear that whatever is good in me, and whatever represents the highest places to which I can soar for myself and for others, all comes from the Maine woods.
Annie Gross, Bunk 12, '69