So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams. – William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis.
Timothy A. Cohn, devoted son, husband, and father, U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, ultra-marathoner, and one-time Congressional Science Fellow for then-Senator Bill Bradley, died this morning. Tim was just a few days short of his 60th birthday.
To be around Tim, whether for moments or hours or days, was for that span of time, to live life on a higher plane. This was true in several respects:
He didn’t merely like science, he loved and honored it. He was meticulous in his own work, diving into arcane statistical analyses (core to much of hydrology) to such depth as to scare off the rest of us, yet always emerging with new insights. At the same time, that experience made him cautious when it came to accepting the work of others. He was skeptical of shortcuts and premature judgments, and found more of this than he liked in climate-change discussions. To dialog with him on these issues was always an education. To leave was to leave with a stronger determination to be more thorough, to do higher-quality work, be more self-critical.
In-depth statistical analysis? He applied that same grit to exercise. Why run one mile when you can run ten? Why run ten miles when you can run one hundred? He loved running long distances. And he’d tell the rest of us, “Ultra-marathons are more fun than marathons. You don’t just run. You talk. You stop for meals. You’re in community…” (Mere mortals struggled to find this line of argument entirely convincing.)
Tim was a closer. He got things done. He finished his races, and he finished his statistical analyses. When we worked together during the late 1990’s with the Institute for Business and Home Safety to put on once-monthly workshops as part of the Public-Private Partnership 2000, Tim was a leading force in marshaling USGS, NOAA, and IBHS colleagues in taking vague workshop ideas and making them actually happen, over a two-year period.
Tim was a gentleman (as in: a civilized, educated, sensitive, or well-mannered man). The word doesn’t get used so much these days – it’s so twentieth-century, or maybe even nineteenth. But it applied to Tim – everything about him, everything he did, and every way he went about life. He was extremely well-educated, but never threw that in anyone’s face. He had a great sense of humor but never employed it at anyone else’s expense. To be around Tim was to experience dignity and respect.
Enthusiasm/positive energy. But time with Tim was never dry, or stuffy, or ordinary. He radiated an extraordinary vitality and passion for all aspects of life and the human experience that was infectious. Remarkably, and most tellingly, it extended to his battle with the lymphoma that finally took him. He was fascinated by the clever medical science and therapies keeping him alive, asked questions of his doctors, read up, and transmitted his keen interest to everyone around him. To be with him during this time was to be built up, not drained. (Truth be told, much of this was also due to his best friend and wife Sarah, who has radiated this same positive force, even as she dedicated months to his care and nurturing. Tim and Sarah didn’t just endure these months; they lived them, filling them with special times and memories shared with the rest of us through CaringBridge, in a way that inspired.)
A closing note: At Wilkinsburg High School in the 1950’s every senior had to memorize 150 lines of poetry. One scrap I selected at the time was this last bit of Bryant’s Thanatopsis. (Wikipedia tells us Bryant may have penned these words when he was only seventeen.) In the years since, I’ve reflected on these sentiments, and always wondered why I chose them.
That is, until today. Thanks, Tim, for embodying the spirit of these lines – and for being the person you are. I know you were a bit of a skeptic about spiritual matters – but I’ll see you in heaven (hydrologists analyze statistics; meteorologists make forecasts). For me, and for countless others, it won’t be heaven without you there. And I’ll bet you’re already finding that your love of science, and exercise, and gentlemanly manner, and enthusiasm and positive energy, are blending right in.
We love and miss you.