WHITEFISH, Mont. - The works of great men last long beyond their passing, so it was fitting that the memorial service for Ben Cohen was in the community theater he helped found, at the base of the mountain he loved to ski. Friends, family, former and sitting Supreme Court justices, legislative colleagues, ski buddies, and the guys who drive the trucks of Ben's garbage service filled the comfortable space to cry, laugh, tell stories and honor the 57 years of life granted to this remarkable man.
Cohen died of a heart aneurysm Feb. 5 in
Whitefish. He served in the Peace Corps in Nigeria, attended the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and added a master's degree
in educational psychology from Temple University to his
undergraduate degree in math.
When he came to
Montana in 1970, the state worked its magic on him and changed his
life completely. After working as a teacher, wilderness ranger,
firefighter, and house builder, Ben and his wife, Connie, started
North Valley Refuse, serving the Whitefish area. Some will laugh to
think of so much education and brain power used to run a garbage
route, but not Ben. He got to live in Whitefish, ski his beloved
Big Mountain and raise Rajal and Isaac on the edge of Glacier
In repayment, Cohen worked hard to
make Whitefish a better place to live. He founded the youth soccer
league and helped start the Whitefish Community Theater, acting in
its first play, Don't Drink the
In 1985, Ben was elected to the
Montana House of Representatives, where he put his intellect and
skills to work protecting the natural world. To preserve the water
quality of Flathead and Whitefish lakes, the freshman legislator
carried a bill allowing counties to ban phosphate-containing
detergents. With a ragtag band of public-interest lobbyists, Ben
took on Proctor & Gamble, one of the mightiest corporations in
the nation, and beat it.
Representative Bob Raney
recalls: "Here were all these high-powered lobbyists flown in from
all over the nation, filling the room to fight the garbage man from
Whitefish. They should have won, since they had more lobbyists than
there were legislators on the committee, but Ben's idea made sense.
Why pay millions to take phosphates out in tertiary sewage
treatment plants when, just by changing detergents, we could avoid
them in the first place? He probably did more for Flathead Lake
than anybody just by banning phosphate detergents."
Cohen served eight years, always fighting for a
clean environment, always a champion for citizen involvement in
government. Just before he died, he wrote a fund-raising letter his
daughter later found on his computer. It begins, "I want to serve
in the Montana Legislature again."
He won't get
that chance, but for those who knew him, who respected his ability
to pull the best out of the people around him, and who understood
his dedication to an honest and open deliberative process, Ben's
spirit will always be there.