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Someone Must Have Made a Mistake

By Marc Jennings

June of 1966 was a time of mixed feelings. When our class walked up the aisles at NCR Auditorium on June 7, we were elated that our high school academic struggles were over. Yet at the same time I believe most felt as I did; that a wonderful time and great friendships were ending. And if these two conflicting emotions were not enough, most of us had expectations of other challenges that lay ahead, and were at least a little apprehensive about how those would turn out. Plus, there was a war going on in an unpleasant corner of the world.

I had all these feelings but I admit to not really empirically assessing the various alternatives. I planned to go to school the next fall and had been accepted by the University of Cincinnati, chosen, primarily, because it was away from home, but not too far; because it was fairly economical; and because other people I knew had gone or were going there. Mostly, though, I was focused on having a good time. I would try to have a good time this coming summer and when I got to Cincinnati I would have a good time there too.

Indeed, I had a pretty good time that summer. I also attended some fraternity rush events near the UC campus. And in September I went to Cincinnati for freshman orientation. We had illness in our family out of town and my parents were not able to take me to school, but a guy from Centerville I had met gave me a ride down with my stuff. My dorm was to be French Hall, a pretty humble structure soon to face the wrecking ball. I checked in and began to take loads of clothes up to my third floor room on the very end of the building.

You know how this is. There are new students all over the place; parents too. Everyone is moving boxes, bags, rugs, study lamps and all manner of items for the care and comfort of incoming students through the year ahead. People meet, move in, say good-bye and enact the ritual of leaving the nest and beginning college. In all this activity I walked in to my new room eager to meet my roommate and new best friend.

There in the room stood a slight kid of average height. He had an anemic look, dark hair, wore thick glasses and had the unmistakable appearance of being a nerd. Not a nerd as we understand the term today, a person writing software code and about to become a billionaire. No, this was the old fashioned kind of nerd, meaning someone who was totally out of it. Someone who could not identify a beer much less drink one. A person who had probably never held a girl’s hand much less scored extra points; and someone who would probably be lost without his mother.

This person looked up, smiled and introduced himself. “I’m Edward Cohn, from Baltimore”, he said. Great, glad to meet you, Ed. “I am attending a Rabbinical program offered jointly by UC and Hebrew Union College.” Rabbinical program? Wait, that has something to do with religion doesn’t it? My alarm was growing. Not only was this guy a dork but he was probably going to be holding religious services in our room! Singing hymns, lighting candles? How could I raise hell while rooming with a Minister? Holy crap! What was going on? Didn’t they know I was expecting to have a good time? What if I wanted to sneak a girl into my room and ask my roommate to get lost for a few hours? Somebody must have made a mistake! I asked, “Ed, are you sure you are in the right room?” I looked again at my room assignment. It was no use. I was assigned to living with Rabbi Ed for the next three school quarters.

In the days that followed I was actually embarrassed that I had Ed for a roommate. This was College! You know, like on John Belushi’s sweatshirt in “Animal House”. I usually ate at the cafeteria with Don Moshos and John Bodey who had requested a room together. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Geez.

Well, it wasn’t long before my attention was directed toward other, important things like fraternity rush parties, drinking, learning my way around, drinking, and even those pesky things known as classes and drinking. And always when I came back to my room, there was Ed, studying. He was always cordial, friendly and polite. He always expressed an interest in what I was doing but he never seemed intrusive about it, or judgmental. He was quiet when I didn’t feel talkative, but he was always willing to engage in conversation, even if his point of view was sometimes a bit naïve. I noticed Ed was always considerate of me, which made me regret a bit that I had not given him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I ought to cut the guy some slack.

I decided to pledge Beta Theta Pi, which was the only fraternity on campus that required you to be a pledge for two quarters instead of one. Bodey and Moshos both pledged Pi Kappa Alpha, Pikes. The Pikes had a lot of guys from Dayton, including Mike Marker, Nancy’s brother. The Betas were mostly guys from Cincinnati but I was going my own way. I got pretty busy but Ed was always interested in what was going on. Sometimes I wondered if he was living vicariously a little through my wild tales. But Ed never exhibited the slightest desire to “let his hair down” and, say, go out for a beer.

Darlene came down once for some event. We were able to have guests in our rooms at that event and she came up and met Ed. They immediately hit it off and Ed seemed to be quite taken with Darlene. Darlene would always ask me how Ed was in her letters and she once sent some home-made cookies with instructions to share them with Ed. Ed seemed very pleased with this attention.

I’m not sure if I fully understood then the concept of respect, but I came to respect Ed. He worked hard all the time. He was truly passionate about serving God, although he often lost me as he enthusiastically described the beauty of Synagogue ritual. He was deeply concerned when Israel was attacked in 1967 in what became known as the Six Day War. And I thought of him in October, 1973 as I frantically prepared my Marine Corps platoon for deployment to the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War.

On our floor of the dorm, as the year progressed, more and more roommates developed issues and hard feelings. Some demanded and did move out. One guy put a tape line down the middle of the floor and walls and forbid his roommate to cross to his side. Even Bodey and Moshos were complaining about each other (well, Moshos had most of the complaints). But Ed and I got along just fine. I’m sure I was plenty irritating but Ed never said a word. The only thing that ever bothered me about him was when he practiced speaking Hebrew—which sounded like he had something caught in his throat.

Only once did Ed and I ever have an unpleasant conversation and it involved a religious concept that he and I, as a Jew and a Christian had been brought up to believe differently about. But it was over quickly and we put it behind us as our common interests and desire to live in harmony brought us back to normal. Not long after this Ed tried to protect me as several Beta brothers stormed our room late one night and demanded I accompany them for the unexpected commencement of “Hell Week”. When I returned a week later as an initiated, but very weary Beta, Ed wouldn’t let me sleep until I told him all about it.

The school year ended and Ed and I bid each other good luck and a fond farewell. We never saw each other again, but I hope Ed is well and has a congregation today somewhere in Baltimore. Ed taught me a lesson that year that I have tried to remember: sometimes you must look beyond the surface to appreciate a person’s true worth; it’s usually worth the effort. Thanks, Ed.