Bert Cohler (December 3 1938 – May 9, 2012)

 Click Here to Read:  Bertram Cohler, psychologist and esteemed teacher, 1938-2012 By William Harms in the U Chicago News on May 14, 2012.

Click Here to Read: Obituary for Bertram Cohler in the Chicago Tribune on May 13, 2012.

Bert Thoughts: In Memorium for Bertram Cohler.
N. Szajnberg, MD, Managing Editor

Bert and I met in 1970 when I was a counselor at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School and he was preparing to follow Dr. B. as the director. I began working as Leslie Aranow’s co-counselor and also the night counselor for the six boys in the youngest dorm.

Bert let us all know that he had been a child at the School. Boldly, he put up for public use (by the kids and others) volumes of his records during that stay.  He announced proudly that for some time, he held the record as a child for getting more counselors dismissed from the School in a year than anyone preceding.  The kids loved this; it was a challenge.

I stayed for several months until Medical School demanded too much.

When I was in psychiatric residency, Bert and I reacquainted. He and Dan Offer had received an NIMH grant for training fellows in adolescent psychiatry. Bert and Dan asked me to apply and I spent the year trying to do both my residency and the fellowship.  Bert got his BA at U of C., but his Ph.D. At Harvard, I believe after working with Redl and Wineman in Detroit.  When a Harvard professor gave a talk at Chicago, all done-up properly with elbow-patched tweeds and rep tie, I turned to Bert, saying how I was impressed by the presentation; Bert responded sotto voce: typical Harvard — 90% style; 10% content. Obits say how nice Bert was; but he was not to be fooled intellectually.  A Chicagoan, he looked for the real thing, for where the meat was.

When in 1985, we arranged a conference to honor Dr. B., Bert co-authored a paper with Robert Galatzer-Levy, which I later published in Educating the Emotions.  A footnote on his grace and generosity.  At the tribute dinner in the Faculty Club (where I had eaten only in the kitchen as a waiter in College), one of the former children, now wealthy, who had refused to attend, marched into the dinner, announcing that he had flown in on his private jet.  The Maitre’d
approached me asking who would cover his meal.  Bert volunteered,
discreetly, for this fellow.

We stayed in intermittent contact until last January when I last saw him at the American.  I often felt a hunger when I saw Bert, a hunger to learn something more from him. Now, I feel the emptiness of loss.


Nathan M. Szajnberg, MD
Visiting Professor, Columbia University
Wallerstein Research Fellow in Psychoanalysis, SFCP
Member, Columbia and New York Psychoanalytic Societies
Training Analyst, Israel Psychoanalytic
646-275-7990
161 W 61st St Suite 3A
NY NY 10023 

Dear Colleauges,

My dear friend and colleague Bert Cohler died on Wednesday. Bert was the William Rainey Harper Professor of Social Sciences in the College of the University of Chicago and help professorial posts in other departments in the University. He introduced hundreds of undergraduates to psychoanalysis each year in the University’s legendary Social Science course. He was a brilliant researcher on life course development and most recently contributed to the life course study of gay, lesbian and transgendered people. He graduated from the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis where he continued to teach until his final illness. He worked with patients throughout his professional life.

Bert had apparently successfully been treated esophageal cancer a year ago but recently developed an aspiration pneumonia from complications of which he died.

Bert was a passionate advocate for what he saw as right. His advocacy for mental health services for poor children, his struggle against homophobia, his love of effective teaching, and his impassioned commitment to intellectual rigor showed themselves in work and clear thinking. His was the quiet but persistent voice of the intellect. He seemed always to keep in mind the quotation with which he signed his emails, “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” (Dante, The Inferno).

Bert did separate his professional and personal lives. His love and respect for people led him to use tools ranging from empirical research to deep examination of his own struggles to explore how individuals, in all sorts of contexts, “search after meaning” across the course of life. Whether talking with a troubled child, a research colleague, or one of his huge number of adoring students, Bert’s ever ready willingness to learn and teach, to recognize the value of another’s world, made him a superb partner in growth-creating conversations. Bert leaves behind not only a massive scholarly accomplishment but also an ideal of compassionate comprehension in the study of human lives.

Bert was sweet, gentle, loving and brilliant. Our community has lost someone who epitomized the spirit of psychoanalytic inquiry and a beloved friend.

Robert M. Galatzer-Levy, M.D.

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One Comment on “Bert Cohler (December 3 1938 – May 9, 2012)”

  1. Holly Johnston, Ph.D. Says:

    Bert Cohler was a part of my professional life since the very beginning. I was a young graduate student at the University of Chicago, beginning my clinical training in the Committee on Human Development, having just left a year as a counselor at the Orthogenic School. When Bert arrived as the new director and as new faculty in the clinical program, we quickly got to know each other. Even then, Bert did not treat me so much as a student but as a younger colleague. I began reading Melanie Klein because of Bert. We talked about having a course on the Narrative of a Child Analysis, that he would teach, and I would be his assistant. I met a group of analysts in Chicago who were to influence the direction of my clinical career from then on. Bert invited me to attend the consultation seminars that Alfred Flarsheim was giving weekly at the Orthogenic School. From there I met Gene Borowitz and Peter Giovacchini, and from there became a participant in the most stimulating educational experience of my life, a study group in psychoanalysis which provided training to those of us who could not yet attend psychoanalytic institutes because we were the wrong discipline.

    I took Bert’s courses at the U of C, I worked as his research assistant, coding TAT stories for relationship categories he had developed, I had dinner at his house and met Anne and his boys. Bert provided warm, intelligent support as one of the members of my dissertation committee. He was there when I got my Ph.D. and met my parents. He came to my wedding reception.

    Bert has always been there. Although there was a long period of time during which I only saw him occasionally, I always knew I could use him as a resource for wide-ranging questions throughout the fields of developmental psychology and psychoanalysis. Every so often, he’d send me a puzzling child to evaluate.

    Our paths crossed again more intensively when I finally decided to go for “official” analytic training at the Chicago Institute. Again, he treated me like the peer I now was. Only last January I sought him out for advice on articles to use in a class I was teaching on Object Relations—I wanted a paper that was developmentally knowledgeable yet accessible for students working with adults. He knew just the thing, published that month. As always, he was the right person to go to for such a question. Bert was always there, and though he might be a bit difficult to reach, once I found him in person or on the other end of the phone, he was available and interested. It feels strange for him not to be there any more. I will truly miss him.

    From Hyde Park, his home and mine for many years,
    Holly Johnston, Ph.D.


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