Remembering Leonard Cole

Remembering Leonard Cole

Ridgewood dentist was a Jewish leader, investigative journalist, terrorism medicine expert among other things

Dr. Leonard Cole
Dr. Leonard Cole

Leonard Cole of Ridgewood, who died on September 18, was a man of such wide-ranging interests and accomplishments that it’s hard to sum them up in one sentence, as obituaries generally do. But maybe it would be appropriate to tease the rest of his story but leading with the one honor that he could not have known he’d be granted.

On September 29, Dr. Cole’s obituary appeared in the New York Times. Not a paid death notice, but a long appreciation of his life.

Leonard Cohen, as he was then, in his high school yearbook.

That’s because Dr. Cole’s long life — he died at 89 — is the story of accomplishments pursued and obtained; of one life divided into many lives, none of them secret, some of them dovetailing with each other, but none an entirely logical outgrowth of the others.

Dr. Cole was a beloved, meticulous, tender-handed local dentist. He was a deeply committed organizational Jew, who chaired many committees at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey both before and after becoming its president. He was a serious Zionist who spent some time on a kibbutz in Israel, taking care of residents’ teeth. He was a political scientist who earned a doctorate in that field from Columbia. He was an investigative journalist and researcher who discovered details about the U.S. Army’s nerve gas tests, and later he wrote about the never-solved anthrax-laced letters that terrorized the country right after the attacks on September 11. He testified to Congress about his research findings, and when Rutgers’ medical school started a terrorism medicine program, he headed it.

He was also a husband, father, and grandfather, a serious tennis player, and a prominent member of his local community.

At his bar mitzvah.

Leonard Cohen — who later became Leonard Cole in a response to antisemitism, and later still became a visible, vocal Jew — was born in Paterson in 1933. (Back in eastern Europe, the family name had been not Cohen, but Krinsky; the history of Jewish family names in America is a fascinating one.) His family — only-child Lenny and his parents, Rebecca and Morris — moved over the still-new George Washington Bridge to Washington Heights for his parents’ business, and then back to Jersey in time for Lenny to go to Eastside High School in Paterson.

When he went to college, he made an unusual decision for his time and place; he went to Indiana University in Bloomington, a very good school not known for its large number of Jews. He not only survived but thrived there, and at the dental school at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s where he met, fell in love with, and married the equally in-love Ruth Gerber Cole; they were married until his death, for 65 years, and shared many great adventures.

In 2015, Dr. Leonard is on a Federation trip to Paris in response to the murderous terrorist attacks on the magazine Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket.

Next, he joined the U.S. Air Force, and the newly married Coles went off to Japan for the two years of his service. He practiced dentistry, and she learned Japanese. Stint finished, the couple moved to Berkeley, California, where Dr. Cole not only practiced dentistry but also earned a second bachelor’s degree, this one in political science.

After that, the family — which eventually grew to include three children — moved to Ridgewood in 1971; Dr. Cole’s dental practice, in Hawthorne, was open until 2000, when his so-called retirement gave him the time to pursue his other interests.

So that’s the dentistry part. What about the rest?

In 2009, Dr. Cole and his granddaughter Lucy both promote books.

Dr. Cole wrote 11 books, mostly about science, particularly on biological weapons. “He thought a lot about the intersection of politics and scientific and technological advances,” his daughter, Wendy Cole of Oak Park, Illinois, said. She’s not sure how he developed that interest, which seems on its face not directly connected to dentistry — except, she pointed out, that good dentists, like her father, must do meticulous work, and her father translated his dentist’s attention to detail to academic rigor in his research. But “if there was a pivotal moment that drew him to this work, I am not aware of it,” she said.

His first book was a study of Black politicians; after that, he focused more and more on the threats that science, if is untethered to morality but weaponized instead, can pose. “The common thread in his work is that he always had a healthy skepticism about institutions and bureaucracies,” Ms. Cole said. “He always pursued answers doggedly about everything that didn’t sit right with him.”

In 2014, Dr. Cole talks to Congress’s Homeland Security Committee about bioterrorism.

She talked about “Clouds of Secrecy,” the 1988 book, his third, that studied an Army program to release harmless substances into the air to see what would happen. The Army insisted that everything it released was harmless, and that no one was hurt. Dr. Cole wasn’t so sure; his research showed that the results were not as conclusive and heartening as the Army had said they were.

“This book showed that here is this dentist from New Jersey, who didn’t have any clout, didn’t have the imprimatur of an organization behind him, and somehow he got access,” Ms. Cole said. She is a journalist and spent decades writing for Time magazine, so she knows how it works. “I don’t know how he did it, except for his sheer persistence. That was his personality.”

How did he decide to work on that story? “I think maybe he found one news clip,” she said. It piqued his interested. “I think that he taught himself to be an investigative reporter, without it ever being his stated goal.”

Family was tremendously important to Dr. Cole. In these photos, he and his wife, Ruth, are surrounded by their children, grandchildren, and other close relatives.

After the September 11 attacks, Dr. Cole’s attention turned to anthrax. In “The Anthrax Letters: A Medical Detective Story,” published in 2003 and revised in 2009, he interviewed survivors and researchers. He did not solve the mystery of who had sent those letters, or why, but he did provide much useful information about how they were handled, and what could be done better should a similar terrorist threat reappear.

He testified before Congress, sharing with the American people the expertise he’d gained through his research.

Then there was the Jewish world’s Lenny Cole.

Lenny and Ruth Cole’s interest in Israel began in the early 1970s with a trip there, Wendy Cole said. “That was game-changing for them. It was a lightbulb moment.” Their intense commitment to Israel grew increasing intense. “My father didn’t care when more people, including Jews, criticized Israel,” she said. “He was never moved by it. He just dug in more and more.”

He was chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and of the Jewish Federation of North America’s Birthright Israel Committee, as well as president of his own federation, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. He served on or as head of more organizations than can easily be listed.

“I can’t mention everything we did, or all the adventures we had,” Ruth Cole said; she was president or chair or a committee member of many other Jewish organizations. “We had overlapping experiences and many people in common, and it widened the circle more and more.

“We were like jugglers. We didn’t drop things. We just added more and more,” until the pins were whirling around their heads, and they handed some off to each other and then sent them flying again. “We felt that there were a tremendous number of things that we felt were worth doing. And we did them. And we did them well.

“I can’t mention everything,” Ms. Cole continued. “I can’t mention all the adventures. He always took one kid at a time to a place they wanted to go. We took them all to the Galapagos. We went to a lot of places that might have been too rough for many people, but he wanted to explore them.”

The desire to explore ideas and places and things ran in Dr. Cole’s family. His last book, “Chasing the Ghost,” was partially a memoir, partially a work explaining science to well-educated nonscientists, about his cousin, Fred Reines. The subtitle is “Nobelist Fred Reines and the Neutrino,” because, yes, Dr. Cole’s cousin, Frederick Reines, won a Nobel prize for his work on what we described in this paper last year, in a story called “Follow the fellow who follows his dreams,” as “detecting the existence of neutrinos, the elusive ever-present, unimaginably fast, barrier-impervious particles whose existence had been posited but not proven before the work he and his scientific partner in this endeavor, Clyde Cowan, did.”

Dr. Reines was also a gifted musician with a lovely singing voice who often starred in local versions of Broadway musicals. So the model of an academic superstar whose ambitions and passions were not confined to any one field was right in front of Dr. Cole.

“You can’t say that he didn’t accomplish what he wanted to accomplish,” Ruth Cole said. “He did. And he left a lot of stuff for us to pursue.”

Ruth and Lenny Cole had three children; Wendy, the journalist; Philip, a professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard; and Bill, a school psychologist who lives in Morristown. They have six grandchildren — Rachel, Charles, Hannah, Matthew, Jaron, and Lucy.

Wendy Cole thinks that the Times obituary’s final quote was so good — because it captured both his drive and his sense of humor, his understanding that there is much in this world that matters, and that his need to pursue it didn’t mean that he should take himself as seriously as he took those matters — that we should use it here. So we will.

According to the Times, Mr. Cole quoted a friend as telling him “that I surely was the best dentist among political scientists, and the best political scientist among dentists.”

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