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Vinnie Cohen passes: A great, great student-athlete

12/30/2011, 3:38 p.m.
Vinnie Cohen passes: A great, great student-athlete

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Vinnie Cohen passes: A great, great student-athlete

Boys & Girls' All-City standout has passed away. One of the hardest-playing athletes of his or any time, he was a tremendous defensive player who could score the ball with the best of them.

Vincent H. Cohen died early Christmas morning. The Boys High School, now Boys & Girls H.S., all-city standout from the '50s was among Syracuse University's (SU) most accomplished student-athletes. He graduated from SU in that distinguished class of 1957 that included roommate and class marshall Brown.

During his undergraduate years, Cohen was a high-achieving scholar and a member of a number of academic societies. One such group limited its membership to just seven top student members, and Cohen was one of only two Black members.

Cohen and Emanuel Breland were the two Black scholarship players on the Orange basketball team. They were stars during the period of partial Jim Crow rules that limited the number of Black players on varsity basketball courts to two at a time. That foolishness prompted Brown to quit the team, though, according to Cohen, he averaged 18 points per game.

Of his time as an Orangeman, Cohen would remark, "I was an employee." He and Brown would sit in their dorm room and talk for hours, contemplating their futures. Of Brown's future, much would come to be widely known on the gridiron and in Hollywood. Less well known was Vinny's.

While at SU, he met the woman he married and with whom he would share more than 50 years of his life. Diane Hasbrouck was a member of one of Syracuse's oldest families; her uncle Ellsworth attended SU and its medical school in the 1930s. After graduating, the lanky genius from Brooklyn's Boys High School enrolled in the SU School of Law, from which he graduated third in the 1960 class.

Opportunities at white-shoe law firms were virtually nonexistent for smart Black lawyers during the middle third of the 20th century. Cohen did work at the newly created Equal Opportunity Commission, but his brilliant career took flight when he joined the distinguished Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson.

At Hogan, he was known as a fierce litigator and trial attorney. No opposing witness was safe under his withering cross-examinations. He was included in the publication "America's Best Lawyers" and eventually rose to managing partner at the firm and led it into its '90s prominence.

Cohen was the attorney for Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown, who served as President Bill Clinton's secretary of commerce until a plane crash took his life.

As an SU alumnus, Cohen was an early supporter of Coming Back Together, the reunion of Black and Latino alumni; a mentor to SU law students; a donor to the law school; and the recipient of the Arents Pioneer Medal, the University's highest alumni honor. He and his wife hosted numerous events for Black SU alumni in their elegant Northwest Washington home.

His civic leadership in the District of Columbia included service on the Federal City Council and overseeing the construction of the Washington Convention Center.

He and his close circle of friends, including New York Times editor Paul Delaney, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, fellow SU alumnus, Pittsburgh Steeler and PNC banker John Brown, along with their wives, relaxed, traveled and reared their children together. At least some of the children of each of four couples attended SU. Tracey Cohen and Vincent H. Cohen Jr. graduated from SU and, like his father, Cohen Jr. played on SU's varsity basketball team and graduated from SU law school.