Cohen remembered for his love of teaching math and his tennis prowess

Henry B. Cohen, a Department of Mathematics faculty member whose interests ranged from teaching theory to inspiring young children to value math, died July 29, 2019.

A graduate of Columbia University, Cohen was a Pitt professor for 40 years. As a researcher, he was “a pure analyst working in infinite dimensional spaces,” recalled his departmental colleague Juan Manfredi in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. But Cohen also was noted for taking his love of mathematics to middle-school and elementary children as Professor Puzzle.

“He always wanted to teach children the value of mathematics and the value of working quantitatively,” Manfredi said. “It was amazing he could go from one to the other” — from instruction for grade-schoolers to his favorite class, Pitt math majors’ introductory theoretical course.

Cohen also founded the College in High School program at Pitt, which for more than 35 years has been offering Pitt credits to aspiring high school students to aid in their college preparation.

When Manfredi joined the department in 1989, Cohen was the chair for instruction, assigning courses. “He was a very good associate chair,” Manfredi said. “He enjoyed teaching and I remember at the very beginning when I was teaching, we worked together, and he took my hand and told me what to do. He was unusually kind (to a beginning professor),” he added.

Cohen, who retired as an emeritus faculty member, was also known for his hard-to-beat tennis serve. He started a faculty tennis group in the 1980s that continues today. Manfredi was a member of the group for his first decade at Pitt.

“He was a tall guy,” Manfredi remembers. “He really capitalized on his strength. He was very competitive and I remember for me it was very important to break his serve.”

Stuart Hastings, emeritus faculty member in the department (and still a member of Cohen’s tennis group), arrived as chair of the department in 1987 from outside of Pitt, when Cohen was already assistant chair. They worked together on department administration for the next eight years.

“He showed me the ropes,” Hastings said. Each term, Cohen would design the schedule of teaching assignments for the department, and Hastings knew he could depend on Cohen’s efficiency. “I got to sit and look out my windows while he did all the work,” Hastings joked.

He also recalled Cohen as a popular teacher with a fine sense of humor. “He always had wry remarks for me — he kept the atmosphere light in the department.”

He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Reva, as well as children Jennie Cohen, Abby (Jonathan) Maeir, Stuart B. Polonsky, Jeffrey (Inna) Cohen, and Andrew (Claire) Cohen; grandchildren Coby and Noa, as well as siblings, in-laws, nieces, and nephews.

— Marty Levine