A Life of Service to Others
To honor the life and passing of D. Walter Cohen, DDS, the Founding Editor of Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry, the journal is featuring a series of tributes from various leading healthcare organizations with which he had a significant relationship. This installment is from Thomas Jefferson University.
I'm one of the thousands upon thousands of people whose lives were touched and made better by Dr. D. Walter Cohen. I was lucky enough to know him for more than 20 years. He was my mentor, teacher, advisor, inspiration, and dear friend.
Walter was larger than life. He was one of those rare people who, just by his mere existence on earth, made you feel that everything was going to be alright. When looking at his accomplishments, you almost have to do a double-take: how did one person achieve so much? Just as amazing, at age 91 he still had more to do, so much more he wanted to give.
Walter reimagined the dentistry curriculum, writing the landmark book Educating the Dentist of the Future: The Pennsylvania Experiment, which makes the case for innovation and a preceptor model of education for dentistry. He helped crack the glass ceiling for women in medicine and dentistry, founding Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine, the preeminent organization supporting women leaders in the fields of academic medicine, dentistry, public health, and pharmacy.
In every aspect, Walter lived his life in service to others. He not only impacted thousands of lives, but he also helped advance dozens of nonprofit institutions through his teaching, research, leadership, and philanthropy. Inspired by Albert Einstein, who used his celebrity to raise funds for Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Walter committed himself to myriad philanthropic causes and organizations, including the National Museum of Jewish History, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Project HOME, which empowers individuals to overcome poverty and homelessness through affordable housing, employment, healthcare, and education. His generosity, encompassing his time, treasure, and talent, was always in full bloom.
Walter was also a skilled fundraiser, which magnified his impact and influence. He was able to clearly communicate complicated ideas and paint a picture of how philanthropy makes a difference. He had a naturally sincere, almost Jimmy Stewart way about him. If he said something was right, you knew it was right. It was hard to say "no" to Walter.
Every institution Walter touched felt he was their own, and rightly so because he always gave 100%. At Jefferson we certainly felt he was ours. For two decades Walter served on the Board of Trustees at Philadelphia University, which combined with Jefferson in 2017. He was the Executive Committee Chair of the "Power to Innovate Campaign," which raised $53 million for key capital projects and student resources. He also sponsored the annual D. Walter Cohen Asclepius Career Day for premedical majors.
When I first floated the idea of combining Thomas Jefferson University and Philadelphia University, it raised some eyebrows. Jefferson was historically a health sciences school and academic medical center, while PhilaU was a predominantly undergraduate university known for its top-five fashion design school and its design-thinking approach to higher education.
Walter was among the first to see the synergy, understanding that you can't remake the world if you're going to be timid about it. He had one question for me: "What's the motivation and vision from the student's point of view-why is it great for students?" Excellent question.
When I told him that it was all about the students, about making Jefferson a place that will prepare students for the future of work, he gave it the green light.
His early confidence was contagious among the Board, and proved prescient. Both our health and fashion "brands" have strengthened. While Thomas Jefferson University has seen its reputation for healthcare and innovation steadily climb, it was named the No. 3 fashion design school this year.
To the end, Walter never stopped championing new ideas-he had a thirst for innovation. About 3 years ago, I asked Walter to work on a special project with Lionel Gold, DDS, another giant in dentistry, and our Chair of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Robert J. Diecidue, DMD, MD, MBA, who many years ago happened to train in the first class of Walter's new curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. I presented these men a challenge. The dental field presently is in a unique space. While a golden age is under way in terms of technology and potential biomedical breakthroughs, there is a severe shortage of faculty capable of teaching new dentists the skills needed to make use of these breakthroughs.
To solve this conundrum here at Jefferson, Walter, once again, was going to rewrite the dentistry curriculum, as he had done at various educational institutions throughout his career. His solution was to create a first-of-its-kind Institute of Graduate Dental Biosciences. The Institute would offer an array of degree options for aspiring dental scientists, covering a comprehensive range of subspecialties unmatched by any other academic medical institution. (As an aside, Walter was keen to call it an Institute, saying, "If MIT can be an institute, so can we.") The Institute was Walter's baby.
Unfortunately, he passed away just before it became a reality. A few months after his death last June, the Jefferson Board of Trustees approved creation of the Institute. It will stand as a tribute to Walter's vision and commitment to training the next generation.
Up until the age of 91, Walter was still seeing patients in his clinical office on Thursday afternoons. For him, it wasn't about legacy or accolades, though he earned them all. Ultimately, he wanted to help others. He was a caring caregiver. It was in his DNA.
Jefferson held a Celebration of Life for Walter, and hearing the wonderful reflections shared by many friends, family, students, and colleagues made our hearts soar. One eulogizer said he was the "conscience of the profession." Another called him, quite poetically, "the pinnacle of energy and accomplishment with a glitter of idealism."
He was special for so many reasons. His professionalism. His personal manner. His passion. Walter was like family to me. When my son was deciding where to go to college, Walter instructed him, "If you graduate, how do you want to change the world for the better? Follow your creativity and your values." Good advice, for all of us.
A few months ago, Walter's life partner, Claire Reichlin, and prominent Philadelphia philanthropists Lynne and Harold Honickman endowed a professorship in Claire and Walter's name. In a bit of perfect serendipity, the inaugural holder of the D. Walter Cohen, DDS, and Claire H. Reichlin Professor of Dental Biosciences is Walter's former pupil and Institute cofounder, Dr. Robert Diecidue. Through the professorship, Walter will always be a part of Jefferson.
When I told my son the sad news of Walter's passing, he quoted Shakespeare. "He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again."
- Stephen K. Klasko, MD, MBA
President, Thomas Jefferson University; CEO, Jefferson Health