She was a reporter's reporter, the sworn enemy of editors everywhere, especially those who labored here at the newspaper she lovingly tried to batter into submission and into greatness across a long and distinguished career.
She was our dean of women, the vocal champion of female colleagues too young or too timid to protest when a well-earned assignment went to a nice, if mediocre, young man who played basketball with the boss after work. She was John Kerrigan's worst nightmare. And John Silber's too. She was Muriel Cohen, and when the retired education writer for The Boston Globe died [December 5, 2006] at age 86, a piece of my heart and the hearts of many women (and more than a few men) in this newsroom, past and present, died with her.
It is easy to forget the challenges that once confronted women in this field, now that men make up less than half of all journalism school classes The world looked very different when Muriel enrolled in Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She was a pioneer, and she bore the cuts and the bruises, as well as the impatience and the regrets that are the lot of trailblazers.
Every editor who marginalized her and every source who patronized her in the early years helped build the extraordinary, if ornery, reporter she was to become.
She gave her editors indigestion, but she won them a Pulitzer, too, guiding the Globe's coverage of the pain and the chaos that greeted court-ordered busing to achieve desegregation of Boston's public schools. US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., who issued that order, once described Muriel Cohen to me as "the fiercest woman in Boston."
He meant it as a compliment.
Helping her clean out her basement a few years ago, my colleague Bella English stumbled across boxes of her notebooks from those years. Muriel would not discard them.
They were as much a part of her history as the photo albums that held pictures of her late husband, Paul, her three children, and her beloved grandson, Jesse.
Garrity was right about Muriel. She did not suffer fakers or fools, gladly or otherwise. She made no apology for a demeanor that scared most of us half to death on first meeting. If breaking down the newsroom door had toughened her hide, well, those she worked alongside could just get used to it. Willingly or not, we all did.
Not everyone saw it, but beneath that gruff exterior was a warm and generous heart. For years, she held court with other women-of-a-certain-age at a large, round table in the newspaper's cafeteria. She literally made room at that table for those of us following in her footsteps. She urged us to do better, to work harder, to cover the State House, to go to Washington, and, when we did, she let us know she was proud.
She chided us, too, for being ungrateful for the bountiful choices we had when, as young mothers, we whined about the stress of trying to balance reporting and parenting.
But she forgave us our self-absorption, coming with soup when our babies were sick and with grandmotherly advice when they went off to college or off the rails.
Our children, who respond with yawns to our own journalistic tales, listened with rapt attention whenever she spoke, whether the subject was her reporting from China in the 1970s or a new charter school that had just opened in Worcester.
For her, Megan, Nick, Tim, Patrick, and Katie would read the Passover story aloud or sing Hanukkah songs when we gathered each year at her dinner table. For her, they would shop for the perfect Christmas scarf or pin to accent her impossibly elegant wardrobe.
There would be no quiet acceptance of the inevitable for Muriel Cohen.
"I can't believe this," she whispered to us as she lay dying, a final, characteristic expression of indignation from the fiercest woman in Boston.