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Joe and "Shorty" Cohn

Updated: Jun 26, 2018

Gretchen Wright

Joe Cohn has lived in West Durham for all of his 76 years.  From growing up here with his siblings and parents to starting a family with children of his own, Durham is the backdrop against which every scene of Mr. Cohn's life has been set.  Kept busy by visits from his young grandchildren and the herd of deer that eagerly frequent his yard for the loaves of bread he doles out so generously, Mr. Cohn still found time to speak about his father, who worked on Duke construction projects for years.

Mr. Cohn's father's given name was Elijah Alexander Corn but almost everyone knew him as "Shorty" and in addition to the nickname, his last name also shifted to "Cohn" over the years.  Regardless of what he was called, Shorty Cohn did work on Duke's campus for many years.  A stonecutter, he would shape individual stones to the exact dimensions specified and pass them along to be laid into the wall by a stonemason.  He learned the trade of stonecutting from his father, and the handmade hammer and chisel that he used every day have now been passed on to his son, heirlooms to remember generations of craftsmen.  "It's a lost art," said Joe Cohn.  "You just don't see stonework like that anymore."

Elijah Alexander "Shorty" Cohn, stonecutter at Duke. Photo courtesy of Joe Cohn.

Initially from Faith NC, Shorty Cohn came to Durham with his father and brother to do some finishing work on the East Campus wall, but with all the construction on the new West Campus, he found work there for decades.  Before this, Shorty and his wife had followed construction projects around the wider region: one son was born in Washington, DC and another in Virginia as they moved from job to job.  After settling in Durham for good, Shorty was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  For much of Joe Cohn's childhood, he remembers his father being in a tuberculosis sanatorium not far from their home just off East Campus: he and his mother used to catch the bus on Broad Street to go visit him.  Later, Shorty was transferred to another treatment facility in the mountains where half his ribs were removed in an operation that seems horrific today but was not uncommon at the time.  Most shockingly, Shorty Cohn went back to work on Duke construction projects after the surgery, laboring on and off with only half his ribs, until he passed away suddenly at age 53.  The Duke Chapel's left arcade (the line of arches connecting it to Page Auditorium) is the greatest testament to his life and work: Joe Cohn reported that his father had been individually chosen to build that specific part of the Chapel.

But before his father passed away, Joe Cohn had a unique childhood brought on by his proximity to Duke.  At this time, his family lived in a three-room mill house with no indoor plumbing and his mother worked at the Erwin Cotton Mills.  Later, she got her nursing license and actually cared for Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, who lived in Chapel Hill until the end of her life.  He remembers walking with his father to work in the mornings and then running around West Campus until it was time to go home, making friends with the campus security guards and students through his shenanigans.  Laughing, Joe Cohn shared that he also used to love to run on top of the East Campus wall but had to have an older brother give him a boost to get up there.  And when he was as young as eight years old, he would sell peanuts at the Duke football games—at least in part.  "In the second half, I said 'To hell with peanuts, I'll sit and watch the game!'"

Mr. Cohn's family has been thoroughly involved with Duke and Durham for the greater part of the last hundred years: his father built West Campus; his mother worked at Erwin Cotton Mills; his children remain in the Durham area for their jobs today.  Joe himself was part of one of the first integrated classes at Durham High School and after graduation, he worked for the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company doing work with environmental protection.  Every part of his story has been uniquely shaped by the town and community around him and evidence for this lies throughout his house, from his mother's old cast-iron washbasin from their mill-house days in the garage to the shelf full of prizewinning pickles with blue and red ribbons from the North Carolina State Fair in the kitchen.  

Duke has truly been a prominent part of the life of Joe Cohn's family since before he was born.  Emphatically, he shared how desperately he had wanted to get married in Duke Chapel but for whatever reason, it just didn't work out.  With a Duke tablecloth outside, a blue devil garden gnome perched next to the television, and Duke glassware displayed around the room, his pride in this school doesn't seem to have abated over the years.  "It's just been sort of a home to us, you know?"

And as students of the university ourselves, we do know.


1. Joe Cohn, interview by author, Durham, NC, June 5, 2018.

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