Ann Arbor News column

July 31, 2001

Varsity letter a sweet reward 52 years later
By Rob Hoffman


The most compelling sports stories aren't always about wide receivers with a 4.2 in the 40-yard dash, 18-year-olds with 110 mph shots or 6-foot-8-inch power forwards with deadly outside jumpers.

Sometimes they are about 78-year-old men with bad wrists and painful memories that won't go away.

Mort Cohn falls into that last category.

In his nearly eight decades, Cohn has every reason to feel proud about what he has accomplished: He served as mayor of his hometown of Monroe in the late 1960s, went to law school at age 53 in 1976 and shortly thereafter opened a law practice where the semi-retired Cohn now spends about five to six hours each day.

But for decades, Cohn endured a private pain that only his family and a few friends knew about.

An athletically gifted teen-ager, Cohn tried out for the University of Michigan golf team shortly after he enrolled in 1941, but shelved school to serve as a navigator aboard B-24 and B-17 bombers that patrolled the Galapagos Islands during World War II.

Re-enrolling in 1947, he earned a spot on the varsity golf team as a senior in 1948. Along with three-sport star Pete Elliott and two-time Big Ten champion Ed Schalon, Cohn is one of six U-M golfers pictured in the 1949 yearbook, which includes a passage about Cohn and Elliott winning best-ball honors in a 16-14 victory over Michigan State.

Yet, when a postseason list of players who had earned varsity letters was posted on a bulletin board at the golf course, Cohn wasn't on it. But a teammate with even less varsity experience was.

Cohn has several theories about his exclusion, but he prefers to keep most of them private - mainly because his coach, Bert Katzenmeyer, who later became Wichita State's athletic director, was killed in a 1970 plane crash that also claimed the lives of 14 WSU football players. It may have something to do with a 2-foot putt Cohn missed against Ohio State in 1949, a shot that almost cost the Wolverines a victory and apparently put Cohn in Katzenmeyer's doghouse.

Then, again, it may not. No one will ever know.

Cohn never forgot that awful moment when he realized he would have to turn in the varsity jacket that said "U of M Golf Team."

"I couldn't have felt worse," Cohn said of not finding his name on the list. "I scampered away and looked for the nearest rock to crawl under."

Cohn continued to run from the pain. He never appealed to Katzenmeyer and seldom talked about the slight. Until May, an Ohio judge was the only non-family member who knew about Cohn's personal pain.

Two months ago, Cohn was talking to a Monroe banker who, it turned out, had played golf at Eastern Michigan. After being shown the 1949 yearbook, the banker asked Cohn whether he had won a varsity letter. "I said I had earned it," he said. "But I hadn't gotten it."

Those words stuck in Cohn's mind until a chance encounter a few weeks later with Jim Briegel, once one of the state's best amateur golfers. Briegel encouraged Cohn to write a letter that he would give to Jim Carras, U-M's current golf coach.

"This would be the thrill of my life if it came to pass that Jim could award me a letter at this late date," Cohn wrote in the July 5 missive. "I won't occupy this planet much longer, but I'll leave happily if this could happen."

Cohn needn't have worried. "To be honest, it (the letter) brought tears to my eyes," Carras said. "I decided that I was going to do something about it."

After satisfying himself that Cohn had accomplished most objective criteria for varsity-letter status, which included competing in several conference matches, Carras received permission from associate athletic director Mike Stevenson to retroactively grant Cohn varsity status. Officially, the athletic department considers Cohn's exclusion from Katzenmeyer's list an "oversight."

Carras drove to Monroe on Thursday to make a surprise presentation of a brand new Michigan jacket in front of Cohn's family and the employees at his law firm. Not a dry eye was left in the conference room.

"I've never felt more gratified in my life," said Cohn, who -now that he is a former varsity athlete-might try to help carry the M Club's "Go Blue" banner before at least one football game. "That was the nicest thing to happen to me since my children were born."

The moment also resonated for Carras, who has handed out hundreds of varsity letters in his 20 years as a golf coach.

"I never stopped to think how important a letter is to these kids, especially when they get older," he said. "I kind of take it for granted."

Rest assured, that's something Mort Cohn will never do.

Rob Hoffman is a News sports reporter. You can reach him at (734) 994-6814 or e-mail him at rhoffman@annarbornews.com