In the early evening of May 7, 2020, longtime NEPCA friend Bruce Cohen, 82, passed away from the COVID-19 virus, which contracted while recovering from knee surgery. Bruce was an emeritus professor of history at Worcester State University, where he taught from 1965 until his retirement in 2016. He was a devotee labor history, a past president of NEPCA, and served both NEPCA and the New England Historical Association (NEHA) in numerous other capacities.
A list of those whose lives Bruce touched is long. I am one of them. I first met Bruce in 1990, at a NEHA conference in Rutland, Vermont. It was a small gathering, which was a lucky stroke for me. I was preparing to defend my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and to say that I was inexperienced as a scholar and academic understates how green I was back then. Bruce and I chatted about our mutual interests in politics and labor history. We also bonded over being fellow Mid-Atlantic natives, he from New Jersey and me from Pennsylvania. Bruce suggested that I get involved in NEHA, advice I took.
Often, the greatest mentors are those who nudge rather than push. Bruce also told me about NEPCA. My first NEPCA conference at St. Michael’s College in Winooski, Vermont in 1991. Bruce introduced me to Peter Holloran, Jim Hanlan, and Amos St. Germain, who also became mentors that “nudged” me to take on roles in NEPCA. In 2002, Margaret Wiley hosted a now-legendary conference at Colby-Sawyer College. We were hit by an unexpected fall blizzard the first day of the conference, an event that turned joyous as attendees bonded and hung out deep into the night. At one point, Marc Stern decided we should sing some old labor songs. I won’t say that any of us were great singers, but if we needed a lyric, Bruce knew it.
What I remember most about Bruce, though, is that at every NEHA or NEPCA conference in which I gave a paper, Bruce was in the audience. When he heard that I published something, Bruce read it. His praise was generous and his critiques gentle. I didn’t always agree with his take on things, but our discussions were always earnest and fraternal. Perhaps he groused about me when I was out of earshot, but I can honestly say that Bruce Cohen was the first person in my fledgling academic career who made me feel like an equal–a colleague, not a novice. He continued to support my work, to be a stalwart in NEPCA after I became executive secretary, and to be a friend.
There are scores of Bruce Cohen stories, including his knowledge of all things Worcester, his voracious reading habits, his contributions to charity, the encouragement he gave to students, and his battles with pigheaded administrators (most of whom he outlasted). I shall leave those tributes to others. My debt to Bruce is that he believed in me at times in which I sincerely doubted myself. If, in my career, I managed to pay it forward and help new generations of students and budding scholars, all I can say is that I had a good teacher. R.I.P. Bruce.