Washburn’s Sheldon Cohen excited students, applied wicked wit

The insolent award is edged in eroding color, its ornate text faded with insults smeared across paper bearing the “seal of the creeps.”


But 45 years later, Don Miller’s memories of longtime Washburn University chemistry professor Sheldon Cohen remain vivid and tender following the unexpected news of Cohen’s death. The mentor to many in the school’s community died with his wife, Virginia, in a six-vehicle crash Tuesday on the Kansas Turnpike near Bonner Springs.

In the days after Cohen’s death, two former students shared stories from their time on campus, talking warmly about Cohen’s influence and what Miller referred to as a “wicked acerbic wit.”

Miller, who graduated in 1973 and now is a doctor with an internet-based prenatal care system, can’t recall what he did to earn a dubious distinction from his mentor — “don’t think it was newsworthy, like blowing up the lab or something” — but revels in the humor he unearthed among memorabilia in his basement.

“With a wee bit of honor and undue jocularity,” the award, produced on an obsolete mimeograph and signed by Cohen, begins, “it is with great trepidation, extreme unrest, and entirely beside the point, that we take no honor in conferring upon Donald Miller Jr. for his raw, callow, incompetent, coarse, common, insensible, slovenly, bumbling stupor which gives way to negligent, inattentive, crass, foolishness, mindlessness, unfit, heedless and inadequate CRUDE behavior.

“For all of this insoluble idiotic conduct you are thrown the IMA HACK AWARD.”

For Kathy Ryan England, Cohen was someone who “got you enthusiastic about things that you didn’t suppose you’d be enthusiastic about.”

As an incoming freshman, she enrolled in a summer chemistry class “because of my boyfriend” and had no interest in pursuing science. But she found herself working with Cohen and other chemistry students cleaning up a campus destroyed by the 1966 tornado one week before her class began.

“He could capture your imagination,” England said. “He could explain something to you in a way that made it not about boring science formulas or algebra or something but about the way the world works and the way things come together to make other things or new things. And he made it exciting.”

Inspired by Cohen, England said she “didn’t end up doing anything I thought I would do.” She went to college to be a history major, became interested in the environment and how things interconnect, and wound up teaching special education in Wyoming after she graduated in 1970. She retired and returned to Topeka about four years ago.

“I remember sitting in his office talking about what we were doing,” England said. “I don’t mean just me. I mean a group of us, and this happens a lot: Sitting in his office talking about what we were doing and what it had to do with what we were going to do next, where we were going with it, that this just wasn’t a thing that, you know, you came to Washburn and you went to science class and you put some things in a test tube and looked to see what they made. That this had to do with where you were going with your career or if your career wasn’t necessarily science what it would give you, what kind of understanding it would give you about the way the world works, about the way the environment works. And this was way before environmentalism was a big deal. But he helped you understand how things fit together.”

Miller also has a story that takes place in Cohen’s office. The way Miller tells it, he was “literally shaken and incredulous” after miserably failing his first test in his chosen major.

“After he pointed out my errors,” Miller said, “I began bargaining with him for some way that my chemistry career would not end that day.”

A heavily skeptical Cohen agreed to give the freshman an A in the class if he could somehow ace every subsequent test that semester. When he relays the story to his kids, Miller said, the punchline is that he pulled it off. By the time he became an upperclassman, Miller saw Cohen every day. Together, they studied the interaction of ozone with inorganic chemicals, “producing something that looked like tar,” through a National Science Foundation grant.

A few months after graduating, Miller received an invitation from Cohen to a social gala for former chemistry students.

“If you are afraid of alumni get-togethers because someone in a $250 suit will try to get you to donate for something or other, put your fears to rest,” Cohen wrote. “I don’t even own a $250 suit (or for that matter, a $150 suit). Our dinner is solely for the purpose of enjoyment.”

Miller never saw Cohen again, but he reconnected by email last year after reading a story in an alumni magazine about Cohen’s work in the aftermath of the 1966 tornado.

“I thanked him for all he did for me and how he made me part of his chemistry family as a young adult,” Miller said.



A memorial service for Sheldon and Virginia Cohen is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Bradbury Thompson Alumni Center at Washburn University. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to the Sheldon and Virginia Cohen Fund for Excellence in the Sciences at Washburn University.