RETIRED federal file clerk Ivan Cohen gave me his business card. It says he's the Education Committee Chair for the Savannah-Chatham Council of PTAs.
But he wouldn’t mind another title on it.
“Political gadfly?” I suggest.
“No, issue-oriented gadfly,” he responds.
Anyone who has attended school board, city council, county commission or library board meetings over the past two decades knows Cohen’s visage.
His rimmed glasses, button-down shirts, note-filled pockets, briefcase and front row seat mean one less empty chair in what normally pass for public meetings around here.
I always wonder why anyone calls them public meetings when the public is absent.
“Showing up to the meeting is a whole lot better than not showing up to the meeting,” he says. “I’d rather be there to see this thing than to feel like you’ve been in a train wreck.”
Cohen these days is a school board regular. But I first saw him at city council meetings in 1999 when he and retired educator Abigail Jordan pushed to get the African-American monument on River Street approved.
I recall many angry words and gavel-banging.
“Dr. Jordan had an overnight bag because she was prepared to go to jail,” he remembers.
Others met Cohen in the 1980’s when he pushed for better housing at Savannah State. And still others go all the way back to his days at St. Pius X Catholic High School.
That’s where his desire for activism—if not his activism itself—began.
“Somebody came on a rainy day and told us this decision was being made to close the school,” he says.
St. Pius X was Savannah’s historically black Catholic high school. The diocese closed it in 1971 to promote integration.
“Some students, they went and marched on the chancellery building downtown,” Cohen says. “I wanted to. But my mother wouldn’t let me. And I did what mother said.”
He sat at home that day.
But after serving in the Air Force, studying at Armstrong and Savannah State and landing a record-keeping job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (a job he had for 33 years), he wasn’t going to watch his world change from the sidelines anymore.
Public officials, reporters and political observers at some point wonder who he is.
“They can swing, try to shoo me away. But I’m fine with that. I’ll come right back,” he says. “I don’t need to vegetate in front of a TV set.”
Of course, a lot of folks would like him to sit out politics. I didn’t know much about his views before this story. And to be honest, they’re not my cup of tea.
He admires Malcolm X. He calls integration a “lose-lose.”
And his harsh words excoriate most local leaders (“more like misleaders”) except the disgraced former City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney (“she got a raw deal.”)
Still, a part of me believes in that Norman Rockwell democracy that they taught us. So when I see “public meetings” where the only people there are staffers, contractors, a handful of folks getting ceremonial plaques (who promptly leave after being recognized) and Ivan Cohen, I “look sideways” (to use a Cohenism) and worry a bit.
Does Cohen believe he’s making a difference?
“I guess I could be of a mind to say, ‘Oh, gee. Is this really worth it?’ I just opted not to choose that kind of mindset,” he says.
“I’m not some starry-eyed romantic. I’m not naïve. I’m not the eternal optimist. There’s going to be some part of me that’s going to be skeptical.”
Just not the part that gets him off the couch for the next meeting.