A campus visit leads to $1.68 million estate gift to Spring Hill College
It’s not often Spring Hill College receives a substantial gift from someone with no connection to the college, other than a one-time campus visit and a drive down the Avenue of the Oaks. Yet, that’s precisely what led Ernst M. Cohn to name Spring Hill College as the beneficiary of his trust, now valued at $1.68 million.
The fund establishes the Ernst M. and Doris B. Cohn Endowed Scholarship for the Sciences. The scholarship is to be based on financial need and will be awarded annually to students majoring in math or science-related fields.
“Estimating that the total initial scholarship awards will be approximately $80,000 a year, and knowing this scholarship will live on in perpetuity, it is almost mind-boggling to realize what this gift will do and the number of students’ lives it will touch,” said Rinda Mueller, assistant director of leadership who handles estate gifts for the College.
“The world has produced few quite so distinctive as Ernst M. Cohn,” wrote Alicia Parker Sullivan ’07. Sullivan majored in history and wrote a biography on Cohn as an independent research project. “His story is not the tale of the Jewish martyr in Germany, or of the lawyer defining international law, or of the astronaut landing on the moon. But, he was there, behind the scenes, a witness and contributor to the events and people that history will always remember.”
Jewish by birth, Cohn was born in 1920 in Mainz, Germany. According to Sullivan’s research and interviews with those who knew him, Cohn was a shy and highly intelligent boy who preferred stamp collecting to interacting with people. He proved to be an astute scientist, even in elementary school; and he demonstrated a mastery of the German, English and French languages.
When Cohn was 16, his mother sent him to live in the United States to escape the Nazi regime. He lived with the daughter of his mother’s former classmate, and his adopted family helped to support him through college. He received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh.
While Cohn was completing college and beginning his scientific career, World War II was raging in Europe. The United States entered the struggle on the side of the Allies after Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Cohn enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as head of the translation team at the first, and most famous, of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. The trial revealed the extent of Nazi atrocities to the world, and 19 of the 22 Nazi defendants were indicted.
“The trial marked an important turning point in Cohn’s life,” Sullivan wrote, “as he truly felt he was no longer a German but an ‘American’ fulfilling his military duty with his fellow countrymen.”
Cohn returned to the United States in 1946 to resume his career at the U.S. Bureau of Mines in Brucetown, Penn. By 1953, Cohn showed tremendous ability in scientific research and was promoted to a position at the Bureau of Mines in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in bituminous coal research.
In 1960, Cohn was selected for admission into the Chemistry and Materials Branch of the Army in Washington. His work was part of a large government effort to encourage fuel-cell production aimed at creating an alternate fuel source. In 1962, he applied his scientific skills to research for NASA. Cohn was chosen to head the battery technology program and fuel-cell research. He also served as program manager of solar and chemical power systems research.
After retiring from NASA in 1976, Cohn moved to Dothan, Ala., where he devoted himself to his lifelong passion of philately, that is, the study of stamps and postal history. He became particularly interested in the history of airmail during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 to 1871. He was considered an expert on the subject and wrote columns for philatelist journals, including American Philatelist for which he was voted most popular columnist in 1982 and 1989.
Cohn married his first wife, Margaret Miller, a staunch Catholic, in 1949. After their marriage dissolved in 1981, Cohn established a supplemental care and special needs trust to help support his former wife.
Cohn married his second wife, Doris Brohm, a strong-willed German woman, in 1981. Confident and intellectual, Doris enjoyed entertaining, traveling, and collecting world atlases and fine porcelain from Europe. She developed bone cancer in the mid-1980s, and died during a second attempted bone marrow transplant in the winter of 2003.
The death of his second wife took a heavy toll on Cohn. By mid-2004, he stopped attending social functions and isolated himself in his home in Dothan. He committed the remaining months of his life to setting up his estate. When the time came to decide on a charitable beneficiary of his will, Cohn chose Spring Hill College. According to Nancy Pitman, Cohn’s estate attorney, he and Doris had driven through campus once while visiting Mobile; and they were struck by the beauty of the azaleas. One year after Doris’s passing, Cohn died of heart failure on Dec. 30, 2004.
Cohn’s first wife, Margaret, died on June 18, 2013. Cohn had no children or other heirs. Upon Margaret’s death in June, the trust terminated, and Spring Hill College became the sole beneficiary of Cohn’s estate. Cohn expressed to Pitman that he wished for the funds to be used for scholarships to students in math- and science-related disciplines.
“It was a very unusual story,” Dr. Alex Landi recalled, “from Mr. Cohn’s decision to give to Spring Hill College, to the size of the gift, to his distinguished career with many remarkable accomplishments.” Landi was the College’s planned giving officer when Cohn died in late 2004.
Pitman relayed to Landi that she hoped Cohn’s story would be shared with future recipients of the scholarship. Having worked alongside Dr. Charles Boyle as an assistant in the SHC Archives, Sullivan was the history department’s first choice to take on such a research project. The resulting biography was titled “Ernst M. Cohn: His Life and Legacy for Spring Hill College.”
“Spring Hill is truly fortunate that Mr. and Mrs. Cohn drove through campus that day, that the sun was shining and the azaleas blooming,” Mueller said. “What a kind and generous gift this couple made for a college they didn’t even know.”