George Cohen dies at 72; Masters Hall of Famer admired worldwide

George in 2007

George in 2007

In the late 1950s, George Cohen was a California high school track star. In the 1980s, he was a pioneering masters track record holder at middle distances, winning an M40 world title for 800 in 1981. In 2009, he was inducted into the USATF Masters Hall of Fame. And in 2010, he was my Southern California Striders teammate in a 4×4 at Sacramento nationals. George touched many people along the way, and news of his death Sunday will sadden friends around the world. Rufus Morris, another 4×4 relayist from 2010 along with Rick Muth, wrote Monday: “Our friend, George Cohen, was admitted to Centinella Hospital with an aortic aneurysm on December 9, 2012. Unfortunately, he passed away from complications on December 16, 2012. A memorial service is tentatively planned for January 21, 2013. Details will be forwarded as soon as possible.”

George applauded Nick Newton at a surprise celebration party in May 2010.

George applauded Nick Newton at a surprise celebration party in May 2010.

Bill Knocke, a high school rival and friend, writes of the Hall of Famer:

Our leader has passed. Nick Newton called me today with the bad news. George Cohen was a world icon throughout the 1980s. Nearly every masters athlete in the world knew George Cohen. George set the bar in the level of competition and records in every event he ran. Those of us that ran with him knew how tough he was from the 400 – 10K. Most of all he was a gentleman.

He set the level of professionalism in our sport. He was on, if not anchored, every American and world relay record team of the Striders. In the 80s I believe … 4×400 4×800, sprint medley, distant medley. George set every age-group record in the 800 and 1500. I remember one workout I ran with George at 40. It was 8x300s with 45 seconds rest. He averaged 46 seconds each. I died at 5. George and I competed in 1957 at the California State High School Championships. God Bless the King.

In researching this tribute, I found two notes posted by George on this blog — not about his own exploits or records but in appreciation for lost friends.

In January 2011, he noted the death of Louis Beadle and wrote:

I was advised of Louis’ demise a couple of days ago by Sheila Newton, who didn’t actually know much else other than the cause of death and the family’s wishes per Louis himself. I have a few great memories of him going back to the late 70′s-early 80′s. As a competitor he was a joy to watch and an inspiration to a young person like me. He was the consummate gentleman at all times and he and his lovely wife and son were always encouraging and fun to be around. He epitomized the spirit of Master’s competition and typified the reason so many of us continue participating in this wonderful sport. Condolences to Doris and Ron and everyone who knew this special person.

In August 2011, George commented on the passing of Bill Fitzgerald:

I am saddened to hear of Bill’s passing. He was a gentleman, a fantastic athlete, a mentor and an inspiration in many ways. Bill personified the good things about participation and sportsmanship.

That was George — more interested in celebrating others than himself.

Perhaps the best example of this was the May 2010 surprise party for Nick Newton, another Hall of Famer. George organized the party, which I chronicled here.

I feel humbled and honored to have been one of his last relay teammates. Please join me in sharing condolences to George’s family and many friends.

From left: Rick, George, me and Rufus. We ran M55 at 2010 nationals because of my age. Everyone else was in their 60s or 70s.

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December 17, 2012

24 Responses

  1. Jeff Davison - December 17, 2012

    Great man.

    We pray for his family and friends.

  2. peter taylor - December 18, 2012

    I became aware of the greatness of George Cohen when he competed at the National Masters Sports Festival at Franklin Field (Philadelphia) in 1982. I’m so sorry that he has passed away far before his time. So many people will miss him.

  3. Bill Collins - December 18, 2012

    Very sad day as we have lost a great man and a good friend to all masters. The Houston Elite family send our prayers to the family. Geroge put a light in all of us on and off the track, and he will be missed.

  4. Doug Smith - December 18, 2012

    Yesterday, I was in shock when informed by Nick Newton of George’s passing. Although we did not know one another, our paths first crossed when we competed in the 1957 CA CIF State T&F Meet in Berkeley. He in the 880 and I in the sprints. Then in 1981 we were representing the USA in Christchurch, NZ, at the World Championships for masters (called Veteran’s World Championships back then). He, Gary Miller, another Hall of Fame athlete, myself and Eric Ewers ran on 4X400R for the USA, and that’s when I really got to know this incredible man and athlete. His muscularity and mental toughness led me to give him the nickname, “Iron Man”, which he seemed to relish. There are not enough words for me to adequately express my love for this gentle man, who always kept a level head, encouraged others, liked to laugh, and gave it his all. To know George as an athlete was inspiring, but to know him as a person was an honor. Last year he graced us with his presence at my wife’s 70th birthday party, and we discussed our mutual love of coaching young T&F athletes. We miss you. Thanks for blessing our lives, Iron Man.

  5. Brian Knigin - December 18, 2012

    I am the Athletic Director at Rolling Hills Prep School were George led our cross country and track and field teams for the past 3 years. George was not only a wonderful coach but a true gentelman. He touched many lives at our school and will be missed greatly. Our entire school community sends their best to the Cohen family in this time of sadness.

  6. Paul Edens - December 18, 2012

    It was very saddening to hear of George’s passing. He was a wonderful friend and a great competitor. He created friendships wherever he went and his passion for running did not overshadow his willingness to inspire others. George Cohen is a legend not to be forgotten.

  7. kevin morning - December 18, 2012

    I met George in 1995 when I first began to run masters track and field. At the time, I was completely unaware how good of athlete of was. He was engaging, humble and well-respected by everyone. He was an inspiration then and he still inspires today.

  8. Nolan Shaheed - December 18, 2012

    I was deeply shocked and saddened to hear of George’s transition.
    Of all Masters athletes, he was the closest to me as he was my idol when I started back running in 1976.

    He ran all of the events that I ran but was so much faster than me. He always encouraged me to do better.

    He had ALL the records back then but was so VERY humble. When we raced against each other, he would usually win and I had no idea that he was ten years older than me. He never rubbed it in.

    George was very smart and excelled in everything he did but about 15 years ago,arthritis forced him to stop being competitive and then to stop running all together.

    He was still supportive of the sport and came out to support me at my gigs when I performed locally.

    He was a wonderful man and if you ever met him, you felt you were in the presents of greatness even before you knew who he was and what he did

  9. Chuck Foote - December 18, 2012

    I met George in 1979 by chance at a workout on the track at USC. For over thrity years we have been friends, he was a true gentleman. On the track a fierce competitor but as soon as he crossed the finish line he was the first to congratulate you. I travelled with George to many a track meet. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. He had the smile and demeanor that would light up a room. When he could no longer run and race, he took on the challenge of coaching. Like his racing he was successful. I will miss my friend as will those many young track athletes who will never get that opportuntity I enjoyed.

  10. dennis duffy - December 18, 2012

    I had the honor to meet George when I first stated masters with the strider. he was a great athlete but even greater person. When we were battling in Melbourne worlds I saw him on mountain top in Tasmania. We loved running after the worlds we went to australians national. George had lost his voice with all the running.but we shared that unique place.

  11. Mark Cleary - December 18, 2012

    I have to concur with Nolan- George was a classey guy who long after his competitive days in Masters Track & Field stayed close to the sport and encouraged everyone he talked to-we will miss you George, but only for a short time- we will see you on the other side when we get there

  12. Christel Donley - December 18, 2012

    It’s all been said: George, you were/are a wonderful friend – in the real sense of the word – and a great athlete.
    I just send you an invitation for the Arcadia HS
    meet, hoped so much to see you there as every year before, officiating as an umpire.

    Will never forget you!

  13. Hugh Adams - December 18, 2012

    Since Bill Knocke emailed me that George passed on, I have been thinking. I spent lots of time training and competing in Track & Field. During the 43 years I ran hurdles and dabbled in other events I got to know many competitors and I made lots of friends. At the meets there were a few folks I just new would win. They had that confidence gained from being both talented and prepared. Typically they were gracious and easy to get to know. George is definitely one of those. As his races progressed I enjoyed watching his posture and determination carry him to the finish line, usually in first place. I’m glad the two photos above show him smiling. That was George off the track. My knees have kept me from running and jumping for the past 15 years, but I continue to think of all the good times I had in the Masters program. I can still picture the great ones as they did their thing during competition. I have been “watching” George finish several races. Of course he won them all. He will be missed both on and off the track by many many folks. Goodbye to a true champion.

  14. Don Cheek - December 19, 2012

    Yes, George was a wonderful person and an outstanding role model for our sport (and being a man of excellence)–he had that rare blend of being kind, respectful and confident–our conversations were few but special–he always made an impact–RIP.

  15. Kettrell berry - December 22, 2012

    Rest in peace George, you will be missed.

  16. Jai Black - December 23, 2012

    George was an inspiration .
    Although I didn’t know him well, he always found a way to give me positive and kind words after observing me compete. His encouraging spirit and wonderful smile will be missed by many.
    Jai

  17. Glenn Curtis Johnson - December 25, 2012

    George Cohen, was one of the best athletes the Masters scene ever saw. Beyond that as many have said George, was an even better person. Many times during the 80’s I joined Reggie Davis, Kenny Dennis, Nick Newton,Rufus Morris, Chuck Foote, Bill Knocke and many others traveling the Masters Circuit with George in his van. We had a blast, fast times with George Cohen. Nona would always hook up some treats which would be gone by the time we hit the freeway (thanks Nona, God Bless the Family). George, not only was a world class athlete he was a world class individual. I have been blessed to have had a George Cohen pass through my life.

  18. John Hall - December 28, 2012

    So sorry to hear of George’s death, he always seemed indestructible. I had not seen him in 25 years but corresponded with him over the years since leaving Southern California. I was a youngster in my late 20’s running for SMTC in the early 80’s and remember George and Mel blasting out repeat 400s in the mid 60 second range. They were in their early 40s at the time and George was running 1:54 and change in the 800. I was always in awe. He will be missed.

  19. Irwin Merein - December 29, 2012

    Sorry to hear about George’s passing. He was a great person to know. It was fun watching him run the workouts with the Santa Monica TC while we were doing our own on the track. He would always say high to us on San Vicente or Ocean Ave on Sat or Sun on our runs. He will be missed. For all the SMTC runners he knew I say rest in peace. Bye my friend.

  20. Lon Barnes - December 30, 2012

    Sorry to learn about George. It has been my pleasure to have known George since the early 80’s. From 1993 until 1998, when I moved back East, George, I and a few others had a standing Saturday morning workout on Ocean Avenue and San Vincente in Santa Monica. I miss those workouts, but I miss more conversing with him. What I miss the most about George is his laugh- I’ll never forget that.

  21. SID HOWARD - January 3, 2013

    I’ll always thank George for giving me the opportunity to run my all time best in the 800m at the 1986 nationals in Long Island, NY I ran 2:02:9 and came in 4th, George ran 1:57 and came in 1st. I felt honored just to have been in that race with him. George and Ernie Billups was and are still my idols. He was a great runner, and a first class gentleman, I’ll always love him.

  22. Brent Jones - January 3, 2013

    I am only 42 years old but ran masters track the last few years. In the late 70’s and 80’s, as a little kid, I saw George run in the California Police Olympics when I accompanied my father Ted Jones every year to events around the state. I remember way back then,thinking how fast George was for any age, not just an older guy(where I am now). He and my father became good friends even though my father ran the 400 on down(never the 800). I was right there for many of the conversations about running and making friends. Fast forward to 2010, where I ran at Sacramento nationals, and I ran into George for the first time in all those years. He didn’t know who I was but I went up to him and said hello. I told him who my father was and he said, “that’s you”? He still remembered me as a little kid, and he asked how my 800 went and gave me advice on the race and for the future. Thank you, George. George was not just a great runner, but a great man.

  23. Harry Tolliver - January 7, 2013

    I am totally shocked and sadden.I first met George
    at National Masters Championship 1980 at Franklin field Philadelphia at age 40 George and Ernie Billups finished 800m ahead of me in dead heat 1:57 and I thought where in the heck did this guy come from, we became friends and competitors after that George was someone that made you bring your “A” game if you were going to compete. Miss you George

  24. Raymond G.Newsome Sr. - March 24, 2013

    I went to Edison high school(Stkn.) with George, and a member of the track team. George was a machine, strong and a gentlemen. In one meet my track shoes were worn and George let me wear his for my event…amazing man. I’m 72 and as I jog and workout I’ve always thought of George is a mind thing, but it keep me motivate. George rest in peace and I’ll see you in the future.

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