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It's your typical August day in Washington, D.C.: One of those patented pool-of-sweat afternoons when most people have peeled off as much clothing as good taste — or at least the law — allows.
But here in his small Georgetown apartment, propped up in his easy chair, Charles Cogen sits in suit and tie. On the walls are pictures of a younger Cogen — you can't miss him, he topped out at 5' 2" — with presidents, political figures, labor leaders and one of him in Selma, Ala. standing next to Martin Luther King. As the rays of the afternoon sun wash the room, Cogen looks like someone very much at home in this upscale rest home.
There's only one problem: Charlie Cogen isn't ready for a rest. An occasional afternoon nap, maybe. But definitely not a rest.
Sure the years have caught up with the 93-year-old first president of the UFT — he has round-the-clock care and recently has taken to a walker. But while a lot of his fellow residents sit staring blankly into space, Cogen manages to get around to the theater, museums and movies. When not out and about, he stays involved with the residence's book, poetry or current events clubs.
Lately, a series of articles by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert on the atrocious working conditions of garment workers in El Salvador is the hot topic. Cogen has taken to circulating copies, hoping to light a fire undersome of the old timers.
"Typical Charlie," anyone who knew him no doubt would say: Choosing to live out his life the way he lived it — alert, attuned and incensed by injustice, wherever it be.
The seeds of social conscience and a healthy disrespect for authority were planted long ago in pre-World War I Brownsville, Brooklyn. Cogen remembers his father, a Russian immigrant, union garment worker and socialist, taking him by the hand to a nearby streetcorner to listen to soapbox orators. "On one corner was a socialist," he recalls. "On the other a communist and another a Wobblie (Industrial Workers of the World) and then a vegetarian."
Asked if any of his father's politics had rubbed off on him, Cogen reminds me that he was once president of the Socialist Teachers League. So did you believe that workers and bosses' interests are inimical. "I did then and still do."
Was that a hard sell for teachers who saw themselves as professionals and public servants? "No doubt, but in my mind working for the government is no different than working for Henry Ford."
Cogen sees no justification that teachers and other public sector workers have long been denied the right to strike. He dismisses as "propaganda" the notion that the state, unlike private business, represents the public interest. "Who is to say what the public interest is?"
He's a man of a few well chosen words delivered thoughtfully and softly. For someone who once held the spotlight of national power, he's not one for holding court or particularly interested in hearing himself talk.
But Cogen was never your typical up-from-the-streets union leader. In a world known for its rough cuts, he was anything but. After all, how many labor leaders' resumes can boast a Cornell B.A., a Fordham law degree and a master's in economics from Columbia — all by the age of 27. Though he left teaching for a while to try his hand at the law — his wife Tess was a lawyer as would be both of his sons — it was the depths of the depression and he couldn't make a go of it. He came back as a $4.50 a day teacher-in-training at Grover Cleveland HS. Later he was one of the original faculty of the Bronx HS of Science where he stayed until he was appointed chairman of the social studies department at Brooklyn's Bay Ridge HS in 1952. Cogen even authored a textbook, "Economics in Our Democracy" in 1950.
While a reserved man, Cogen delights in retelling the time Mrs. Fitzpatrick, the principal at Bay Ridge, "fell for him." An old school type and true believer in the doctrine of principal infallibility, she and Cogen never hit it off. After repeated run-ins over his union activities and her wanting to dictate what texts would be used, she tried to have Cogen transferred. They had a face-off at the superintendent's office where she lost her case. To add injury to insult, upon exiting the meeting she suffered a leg injury when she slipped and fell on the ice. "When I got back to school, word had gotten around that I had something to do with her injury. In fact, one person said to me: "I hear you broke Mrs. Fitzpatrick's leg," Cogen says, laughingly.
Forty years later, he's still a thorn in the side of his keepers. Among other things, Cogen had some run-ins with the residence's administration over the handling of trips. He recently complained when an outing was cancelled at the last minute due to a poor turnout. And made his displeasure known when a trip to the Holocaust Museum was abruptly ended after only one hour. Undeterred, he made his own arrangements to go back soon afterward.
During lunch in the dining room, the residence's executive director stops by for a visit. A pleasant woman, I ask her if Cogen's been giving her a lot of trouble given the fact that he made his living by making trouble for the authorities. "Oh yes, we know all about Mr. Cogen," she says. "He certainly does keep us on our toes."
When she leaves, Cogen leans over and in a conspiratorial whisper says: "Don't be fooled. She runs this place with an iron hand. Maybe, it's not my place, but I'd really like to do some organizing," he says, his voice trailing off.
Typical Charlie: He's not going down without a fight.