When Donna McNamara interviewed with Lawrence Cohen for a job promotion in 1981, each left the interview wanting nothing to do with the other.
Thirty-six years later, McNamara is lamenting the sudden death of Cohen — who became her husband — while Morristown municipal officials are mourning the loss of a colleague they described as a gentleman, friend and mentor.
Cohen died at home on Nov. 12, 2017, after a short battle with mesothelioma. He was 77.
McNamara was working in Washington DC, seeking a promotion within the Bell System, when she interviewed with Cohen in New Jersey.
“I left right away and told my boss, even though I wanted to go to headquarters, there was no way I was working for this guy!” she recounted. Cohen, she later learned, had a similar reaction.
“As I was leaving one door, he had walked out the other door and told his boss: ‘No way is that woman ever working for me!'”
McNamara now chalks it up to two strong personalities. Interviewing again with someone else, she got the promotion…and got to know Cohen when he offered to show her around the Morristown area. Away from the office, they discovered strong chemistry.
“I just found him to be a smart, nice, interesting guy,” McNamara said.
Everything clicked during a date at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where they had gone after watching one of Cohen’s friends compete in the New York Marathon. They sidled around opposite sides of a display case and accidentally bumped each other.
“It was almost like a physical lightning bolt, and we both felt it. We went to the wine bar and said, ‘What was that?'” McNamara said.
They moved in together and married a decade later, the second marriage for them both.
The couple was active in Morristown’s Kellogg Club, and their extensive travels included recent trips to Cuba, and to Israel and Poland on a mission arranged by the Jewish Federation.
‘THE COURAGE TO SPEAK HIS MIND’
As he approached retirement in the early 2000s, Cohen stepped up his volunteer activity in Morristown, serving first on the planning board and, until his death, on the zoning board.
“Morristown was one of Larry’s passions and his influence has rubbed off on me and will forever be a part of Morristown,” said former zoning board Chairman Cary Lloyd, who described Cohen as a friend and mentor who encouraged his participation in local government for 20 years.
Cohen had the confidence and strength of character to buck the majority when he felt his colleagues were mistaken about a zoning application, Lloyd said. “It’s one of the things that he taught me on the board.”
Mayor Tim Dougherty said he was honored to call Cohen a friend and neighbor.
“I will miss our times of sharing a pot of coffee and talking about issues that were important to the town and to him,” Dougherty said. “He told it like he saw it, but he was a gentleman, and he loved Morristown. Our neighborhood will miss him terribly, and our thoughts and prayers are with Donna and the family.”
Phil Abramson, who became the town planner in 2012, also remembered Cohen as a mentor who was generous with his time and advice.
“Larry was always upfront and honest with me,” Abramson said. “He never hesitated to tell me what he thought I needed to hear, whether it was a positive compliment or a difficult conversation that forced me to face some hard facts.”
That included making “sure I knew what his neighbors were saying or thinking, to help me better serve their interests as the town planner. So from that perspective, I will always remember Larry as an independent thinker who had the courage to speak his mind, even when it wasn’t always the easier thing to do,” Abramson said.
After becoming zoning board chairwoman two years ago, Meredith Marcus got in the habit of seeking Cohen’s critiques.
“He would respond honestly with praise or areas where I could improve. I will miss him dearly,” Marcus said.
Careful and thoughtful, Cohen looked out for residents’ interests, did his homework, and periodically reminded board members “that they need to make sure they visit the properties in person!” board Vice Chairman Michael Schmidt said via email.
From his jacket and tie to his calm and dignified demeanor, Cohen showed respect to applicants, added board member Linda Carrington. “I’ll miss him,” she said.
“He always had a smile on his face,” said Zoning Officer James Campbell, noting Cohen’s sense of fairness and his joie de vivre. He remembered Cohen’s delight in showing photos from Cuba, where Cohen and McNamara had helped volunteers teach English in Havana.
DIAGNOSED LAST MONTH
Born in Brooklyn, Cohen graduated from Brooklyn College and became an accountant. After earning an MBA from Pace University, he started a career in organizational consulting, working for AT&T, McLagan International Consulting, and PSE&G.
Cohen’s swift illness stunned family and friends. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma less than a month before his death, McNamara said.
Although this cancer sometimes is associated with exposure to asbestos, Cohen had no known exposure, McNamara said. Her husband experienced shortness of breath after Labor Day, McNamara said.
Cohen is survived by a son from a prior marriage, Matthew, and his wife Shelley; grandchildren Lincoln, Keeley, Logan and Evelyn; a niece, Lindsay, and a nephew, Aslan.
Lincoln, 9, said his Grandpa always put others first; Keeley, 7, said he taught her about politeness by opening the door for her, and by waiting for everyone to be seated before starting dinner.
A memorial celebration of Cohen’s life is scheduled for Dec. 17, 2017, from 3 pm to 6 pm at the Kellogg Club, at 25 Colles Ave. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Jewish Federation of Greater Metro West, New Jersey.