Sharon Cohen, a matchless reporter who told American stories with great skill and compassion over more than four decades at The Associated Press, died Monday at her Chicago home. She was 68.
At her death, more than a year after she was diagnosed with brain cancer, Cohen was a national writer, a prestigious position she had held for 20 years. From her base in Chicago, she unreeled an array of stories about the triumphs and tragedies of people both ordinary and extraordinary.
There was the story of Vashti Risdall, the foster mother of 162 children who retired at age 96 only because her 74-year-old daughter insisted. Of Marine Sgt. Merlin German, the “Miracle Man” who survived a bomb blast in Iraq, dancing with his mom after 100 surgeries. Of barber Gilbert Peppin, who lived under a shadow for 30 years, unjustly suspected of his wife’s murder.
Every story got the Sharon Cohen treatment: determined reporting, zealous fact-checking, direct and evocative writing. She knew no other way.
“Sharon’s genius was in capturing the stories of Americans as they lived out the intense changes and disruptions of the last 40 years — struggling when their town’s factory closed, trying to pull away from drugs or violence, bewildered when they came back from war,” said Sally Buzbee, the AP’s senior vice president and executive editor.
“Her stories often made me cry. They always opened our minds. As a reporter and writer, she was a dream — both utterly precise and dogged and also hugely compassionate.”
Cohen was an idea machine, never comfortable unless she had one story she was working on, another on deck and others in line. In the days before the internet, when she was a regional reporter covering the Midwest, Cohen subscribed to a score of small newspapers; she was always looking for that three-paragraph brief on page 38 that might turn into something special.
She gathered far more research than she could ever use, filling file cabinets throughout the Chicago bureau.
“You know the iceberg principle of writing, where most of the writer’s research and knowledge is below the surface?” said former AP editor John Dowling, a longtime friend and colleague. “The bottom of Sharon’s story-iceberg was more like an Antarctic ice shelf.”
She wrote just about every kind of story imaginable in the course of her career, but patterns emerged. She wrote true crime stories — a ring that used babies to smuggle drugs, for example — but also larger pieces about women jailed because of opioids, about juveniles in prison, about the failure to investigate the disappearances of Native American women.
She wrote about American workers: struggling farms, the lives of meatpackers 100 years after Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle,” auto workers forced to commute 500 miles to new jobs when their plants closed.
She wrote about America’s fighting men and women. In 2008, she told the story of “The Long Haul” — a 15,000-word, seven-part serial that won smashing front-page displays in newspapers across the country.
“This is the story,” she wrote, “of a very long deployment of a very long war, of how members of the 1st Brigade Combat Team/34th Infantry Division lived and died in Iraq, how their families endured while they were gone, and how what happened in a far distant land still resonates today.”
And she wrote about her native city.
Cohen was a devoted daughter of Chicago. She never left it, aside from attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She worked for community newspapers, the suburban edition of the Chicago Tribune and United Press International before joining the AP in 1979.
She knew Chicago’s history and its neighborhoods, loved its rambunctious politics, railed against its corruption and greatly admired its hard-working people. She also felt that it was too often stereotyped.
And so she wrote about Urban Prep, an inner-city school that had the audacious goal of sending every member of the Class of 2010 to college — and succeeded. And one of her final stories, published last fall, was about Auburn Gresham, a Black neighborhood where people found hope despite their struggles with COVID-19, violent protests, gun violence and economic misery.
“I’ve tried to explain and capture the lives and voices of people who aren’t in the headlines every day, because I think those are the most powerful stories,” she said in 2015 upon receiving a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her life’s work.
Cohen received many other prizes, including the AP’s Gramling Journalism Award in 1999. She won countless Peter Lisagor Awards from the Chicago Headline Club; no one knows just how many.
Little wonder that some colleagues called her “the Queen,” according to AP National Writer Martha Irvine. Cohen was intense, and intensely private. For a long time, Irvine found this diminutive woman — who always wore high heels, even while reporting in the oil fields of North Dakota — hard to befriend.
“Then on one of our trips … she walked down the aisle of the plane, dropped a chocolate bar on my tray and grinned ever so slightly as she continued on,” Irvine recalled. “I’d finally made it.”
Chocolate was not necessarily the most prominent of Cohen’s passions — she loved to travel, she was an avid reader, she enjoyed photography and was good at it. But this notoriously finicky eater’s love of chocolate and other sweets endured nearly to her life’s end, said Mike Robinson, a former AP staffer who was her partner for 40 years. (He survives her, as does her brother, Marshall Cohen of Chicago, and his wife and two children. She was predeceased by her parents, David and Esther.)
As recently as January, Robinson said, she ordered babkas from two Jewish bakeries in Brooklyn. It was a sort of experiment, to see which one was best.
Both were delicious; it was too difficult to decide. So they ate them both.