A clinical psychologist, a prolific scholar in his field, a deeply engaging professor. Bertram J. Cohler had many roles in the University community, but he brought the same sincere compassion to each.
Cohler grew up on the U of C’s campus, first attending the residential Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School and later receiving a bachelor’s degree in human development. Just 12 years later, he would join faculty of his alma mater.
Geertrui M. Spaepen created a website where friends, students, and colleagues could share tributes to the professor. The website came out of a discussion with Cohler’s son James , when the two met among a small group that had gathered around the University flagpole, flying at half-mast in Cohler’s honor. Spaepen herself shares many connections with Bert, as a graduate student in the Comparative Human Development department and a Resident Head in Linn House where Bert was the faculty fellow for years.
Within hours of the site’s creation, visitors began sharing memories from Cohler’s decades of teaching. The site now includes tributes from colleagues, friends, and students-- a testament to the number of lives Cohler touched before his passing on May 9th.
On the first day of the site’s launch, the website received over 2000 hits—with visitors viewing the site from New Zealand to Italy to South Africa. “You could see over time, across the time zones, as news of Cohler’s passing and tribute website spread,” Spaepen said.
Outside the classroom, Cohler devoted himself to improving the lives of undergraduates in his former role as Resident Head of Linn House in Burton-Judson Courts years ago. Even after leaving his position in the Housing System, he continued as the faculty fellow of first Linn House and later Wendt House on South Campus.
According to Spapen, each year “like clockwork”, Cohler would call and offer to lead the annual Aims of Education discussion. For the first-years, this exercise is a first taste of University-style discussion.
“As soon as he got back to the apartment, he was one of them,” Spaepen said, adding that Cohler would kick off his shoes, sit down on the floor and join the dozens of students crowded in the apartment.
A two-time Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching winner who taught for 40 years, Cohler will be remembered for his intellectualism and intense passion—whether he was teaching a core SOSC class or upper-level seminar on Freud.
For Cohler’s most recent students, the sadness in his passing comes with an appreciation for the opportunity to study with him in his last months at the University.
“I just feel very fortunate that I knew Bert, that I chose to take his section of the class that used to be ‘SOSC II’ when he was in the College, that he taught me Marx,” said first-year Emma LaBounty. “It would be overly resentful to feel anything else: I was tremendously lucky; it gives me chills to think about the fact that I was a part of the last group to learn those texts from him.”
For second-year Sam Levine, Cohler showed an exceptional level of devotion to his students. “I first emailed Bert to see if I could get into his section of Self, Culture, and Society. He told me that his class was full,” recalled Levine. “A few days after I emailed him, he called me on my cell phone to let me know that a spot had opened up in his class. I had never gotten a phone call from a professor before, so you can imagine my surprise when I checked my voicemail and heard Bert's soft, midwestern voice.
“That small gesture captured how Bert approached his teaching and his students,” Levine said, “With Bert, class never ended simply when the hour was up—there was always time to take your thinking one step further.”
Christina Pillsbury, a third-year in the College, has known Cohler since birth—he worked on her father’s dissertation committee at the University. Years later, she would return to attend the College, taking courses with the renowned psychoanalyst.
In one-on-one sessions, Pillsbury said it was clear that he cared deeply about his students, encouraging them in other classes. “His office hours were so amazing,” Pillsbury said. “Any student lucky enough to have Bert as a teacher knows that he wasn't just a teacher, he was a mentor, he had a great deal of influence about on my ability to talk to subsequent teachers if I was having trouble.”
From day one, Pillsbury said Cohler’s caring spirit was “formative” in her first year at the University.
He shared a story from his clinical experience with the class on the first day of her SOSC section in 2010 and to this day, Pillsbury remembers it as the perfect of example of Cohler’s interest to the experiences of others.
He told them about a problem diagnosis, "I had a resident ask me once, 'well what is she, bipolar or schizophrenic?'” To the question, Cohler asked,“What if she's neither? What if she's just a person who hurts?'"
It was with this compassion for others that Cohler taught, researched and lived at the U of C. To read other tributes and memories of Bertram J. Cohler, visit the memorial website created in his honor.
Posted on: Thursday, June 7, 2012 - 8:00pm