Advocate for Elderly Elias Surut Cohen Dies at 93

Marcia and Elias Cohen in Arizona | Photo by Claire H. Cohen

Elias Surut Cohen of Wynnewood, an advocate on behalf of the elderly and a lawyer who served as Pennsylvania’s first state commissioner for aging issues, died on Nov. 24 at Lankenau Medical Center from an intestinal ailment. He was 93.

To those who knew him well, Cohen was “Eli.” To his sons, Barry and Peter, he was someone to emulate. And in one much-publicized incident, he was referred to as “wild jackass,” a title that Barry Cohen disputes but the man himself was delighted by.

The incident came during a 1961 legislative session of the Pennsylvania Senate, just a few years into Cohen’s tenure as state commissioner for aging issues in the Department of Public Welfare, after he had earned a reputation as a forceful promoter of rigorous standards for nursing home operators. Sen. Israel Stiefel, a fellow Philadelphia Jew and Democrat (and a scholar of the Bible and Semitic languages) hurled the epithet at Cohen during the reading of House Bill 1172.

“A public official should be firm, decent and courteous,” Stiefel said, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “and these are qualities which Elias Cohen lacks.” Cohen was defended by at least one senator, according to the Inquirer, and the legislation passed anyway.

Cohen was appointed to his position as commissioner on aging in 1959, when he was just 29. By then, he was married to Marcia Cohen, who he met when she was still in high school in Long Island, New York. After they married in 1948, they moved to Camp Hill.

Marcia Cohen recalls that her husband was voted “most versatile” in his high school yearbook, and that he maintained his notably wide variety of interests and abilities throughout his life. Outside of his work as a public advocate, lawyer and editor of The Gerontologist, a national journal on aging, Cohen was also a leading collector of antique sheet music, according to Barry Cohen. He played guitar, too, and polished the silver of the Torah ornaments at Main Line Reform Temple before the High Holidays.

After his tenure as state commissioner for aging issues came to a close, Cohen briefly served as the state’s commissioner of family services. Soon thereafter, he entered the Temple University Beasley School of Law, graduating in 1975, a fresh-faced lawyer of 49 (he had previously earned a master’s in public administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University). He had a stint on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine before he became the attorney directing the Project on Aging, Law, and Long-Term Care at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

His passion was on display in testimony he gave to the United States House Permanent Select Committee on Aging as a representative of the Public Interest Law Center, an episode recounted by the Inquirer. Cohen, testifying to the House after a fire killed nine elderly residents of an unlicensed boarding home, thundered against the “callous neglect” of the commonwealth and the Department of Public Welfare for failing to enact the law of the land.

It wasn’t all seriousness for Cohen.

Marcia Cohen remembers him as a quick wit and excellent travel partner. It was with his encouragement that Marcia Cohen decided to pursue a master’s degree in social service at Bryn Mawr College. She said she sees her husband’s love of learning and desire to serve in her sons.

Jerry Chazen attended the University of Wisconsin with Cohen, and the two remained close until Cohen’s death. Their dormitory friendship expanded into a lifelong shared interest in opera and theater, punctuated over the decades with joint vacations, live performances seen together and mutual interest each other’s work — Chazen is one of the founders of Liz Claiborne Inc.

“I was proud to call Eli my friend,” Chazen said.

Cohen is survived by his wife, Marcia, sons Barry and Peter, and four grandchildren.

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