One of the standard responses to a death, particularly to a young person’s death, is the vow never to forget him.
“He’ll always be in my mind,” people say. Or “She’s deep in my heart and will be there forever.”
But people are people, with human memories and real lives piling new experiences on top of older ones. Usually they forget.
Ira Sohn, who grew up in Englewood, died in 1993. He was 29 years old. His younger brother, Evan, who still lives in Englewood, along with some of Ira’s closest friends, decided they would not forget Ira. They would keep his memory alive. And they would use his memory to make life better for other people.
That was the genesis of the Sohn Conference Foundation.
The conferences that the foundation runs are a logical expression of some of the passions and themes of Ira Sohn’s life, his brother Evan said; they’re a clever way to capitalize on intellectual excitement and turn it into effective fundraising.
Ira was diagnosed with cancer five years before he died. It was a “clear cell sarcoma in his arm that eventually spread to his lungs,” Evan said. It was not a childhood cancer — and he was not a child when it struck him, but the chemo he received — treatments that were state of the art then, but far harsher and harder to endure than the not-for-sissies treatments patients endure today — was administered at Tomorrows Children’s Institute, now part of Hackensack Hospital. Ira “liked being around kids,” Evan said. “They were always smiling. They were happy, even when they were getting chemo.” They were hopeful, even in the face of hopelessness.
Ira was a Wall Street trader, Evan said, and he also “was a very nice guy.” The people with whom he worked did not want his memory to vaporize. They wanted a way to remember him. So “his manager and two of his friends approached the family with an idea,” Evan said. Doug Hirsch, Lance Laifer, and Daniel Nir “had an idea, 23 years ago, to have a conference. The format would be that financial professionals would have 15 minutes to give their best stock ideas.”
The conference is highly prestigious. Leading figures in the finance world speak; it’s competitive, and over the past two decades has gotten to the point where it not only reports on market movements but causes them. In 2008, for example, Evan Sohn said, David Einhorn talked about the problems at Lehmann Brothers; a few months later, the storied firm had declared bankruptcy.
The conference is not about abstract theories but real trends, reality-based predictions, and hard-won insights, not air but tachlis. It’s real. “Speakers guard their information and craft it for the day of the speech,” Evan said. “It is an amazing thing. And people come for the content, which is noteworthy, but they write a check for the charity.
“All these luminaries donate their time, year after year, and it helps the foundation raise money for the cause.”
The foundation has an annual conference in New York and in 10 other cities around the world, in nine countries on four continents. (It’s in New York, San Francisco, London, Monaco, Zurich, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Sydney, Toronto, Tel Aviv, and Sao Paolo.) Although the first conference attracted “70 people, and most of them were related to the founders, now we have thousands who attend around the world,” Evan said. The foundation has raised more than $80 million dollars, he said.
So that’s the income side. Where does that money go?
“When we started to think about where the proceeds should go, we thought about pediatric cancers and other childhood diseases,” Evan Sohn said. First, there was the fact that his brother had loved children and taken heart from them. Also, “we thought about the impact we could make, from a financial perspective.
“If you look at the money that is raised for adult cancer, it far exceeds the money raised for pediatric cancer, so we saw the opportunity for a more significant role.”
For a number of reasons — including the fact that childhood cancers afflict fewer people than other cancers do, and therefore there is less impetus to work to counteract them, and also the fact that the emotional impact that children’s deaths have on their families makes it less rather than more likely that parents would chose to memorialize them in this way, for a range of emotional reasons — research in childhood cancers is not well funded. That, in turn, discourages researchers.
The Sohn Foundation works to counter that.
It funds “scientists at the top of their fields, and also junior fellowship programs,” Mr. Sohn said. It works with the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation to provide fellowships, and it invests in research in both science and technology. “We ran the first international symposium for pediatric cancer research, which brings together scientists from around the world,” Mr. Sohn said.
The foundation works with Columbia University’s precision medicine program, “where we fund any child in the New York area who has cancer and wants that test.” A small child on Long Island who had cancer was tested; follow-ups showed that he, his father, and all of his four siblings had a genetic mutation that could lead to another cancer that might well have killed them had it not been detected and preventive measures taken. The family today is flourishing, and Mr. Sohn is overjoyed to have been part of a story that could have had a very different ending.
The Sohn foundation has partnered with Rockefeller University, on Manhattan’s East Side. “It is one of the top research institutions in the world,” Mr. Sohn said. “If they were a country, they would have the third most Nobel-prize-winners. They have 24 Nobel prizes.”
On Wednesday, November 15, Rockefeller University honored the Sohn Foundation for the support it has given in the advancement of science and technology, which are used, in all their abstract glory, to help save the very real children afflicted by cancer.
All this is because of Ira Sohn, Evan Sohn’s big brother, always three years older, three years ahead, three years better.
So who was Ira Sohn?
The son of Judith Silverstein Sohn, who died in 2011, and Dr. Norman Sohn, the oldest of three (Ira, Evan, and Elana), Ira went to the Moriah School; his parents had moved to Englewood specifically so their children could be educated at the then-fairly-new institution.
He made an impression on people, his brother remembers; he hears about it still.
His oldest son is spending his post-high-school year in Israel now, Mr. Sohn said, and reports getting a text from friends in another school. “The rabbi there was telling them a story about dressing appropriately, and about how the way you dress affects the way you feel, and you should embrace it.
“The rabbi said that when he was in eighth grade, in Moriah, there was a kid in his class who always dressed appropriately. He was always put together nicely. One day, the rabbi reported — and these girls texted their friend, who told his father — I asked him why he dresses like that, and he said, ‘I like the way it makes me feel.’”
The rabbi included the name of his eighth grade friend in his story. It was Ira Sohn.
(How did Ira dress? “He was preppy,” Evan Sohn said. “Very preppy. A very preppy kid. I think he knew how to tie four different kinds of ties.”)
He was well loved. “He was in an industry where you don’t usually find that,” Evan said. “He had a nice, warm, friendly personality, and that’s not what you expect on Wall Street.”
That might be what you’d expect a brother to say, but here’s a story that shows that he is not alone in his assessment.
When he died, Ira Sohn left a widow and their seven-month-old baby. (That baby, Gila Sohn, now is married to Jeremy Levinson. They live in Manhattan and she is flourishing, her proud uncle reports.)
His cancer started in an arm, and when it recurred, soon before Gila was born, Ira’s arm was amputated. “That was right before his daughter was born,” Evan said. “He was very nervous about it. He worried about how he’d be able to lift a baby with just one arm.”
The family lived in Jamaica Estates, in Queens; his illness affected the community. “Twenty years later, I met someone from that community who found out that I was his brother, and he just started to cry,” Evan said.
So when the community learned that Ira was afraid about being able to pick up his daughter with just one arm, people figured out a way to help. “People from Jamaica Estates lined up with their babies, so he could practice holding them,” Evan said.
Often, people who die when they are 29 leave only vague traces of their lives 24 years later.
Ira Sohn’s legacy is life and hope for children with cancer. They and their families, like Ira’s own family, will remember him for the rest of their lives.