The College loses one of its all-time greats.
I befriended Peter Kohn late in his career and life. The Middlebury College Alumni Lacrosse team contracted with me to document Peter’s contributions to their program in the summer of 2002, and I was assigned to rendezvous with him at the Vail Lacrosse Shootout.
I was told he was a special person and that I’d recognize him immediately. I arrived at the field, and I remember seeing an elderly man trudging across the sideline—a bottle of water in one hand, a towel in the other.
I never imagined how close a friendship I’d share with this gentleman, how I’d come to believe so strongly in the meaning of his life and work. Patiently, carefully, I observed Peter with my camera, gathering footage for the documentary feature Keeper of the Kohn, released in 2005.
Peter is a true sports legend. On statistics alone, he was one of the game’s most accomplished figures, having worked the sidelines for six U.S. teams and roughly 25 college all-star games. Working with a host of Middlebury teams over the last 25 years, he possessed a championship ring for every finger. Another legend, former Hopkins coach Bob Scott, called Peter the most impressive person he’s seen in his 60-plus years in lacrosse.
But he never scored a goal. He rarely even set foot on the lacrosse field, except to shag balls in warm-ups or pose for photos after games. That he was a team manager might, for some, suggest that we include an asterisk by his name when we refer to him as an icon. But anyone who knew him and witnessed his contributions will disagree.
Born in Baltimore in 1931, Myron Gutman “Peter” Kohn was the grandson of businessman Bernard Kohn, the founder of the Hochschild-Kohn department store. Peter and his brother had what we now, more humanely, refer to as “developmental disabilities.”
There was no consensus then or now about what might have constituted his specific challenges. Some say autism; other suggestions range from Asperger’s syndrome to hereditary disease. An early diagnosis was schizophrenia, but this was years before doctors distinguished among the spectrum of cognitive and neurological disorders.
The recommendation for families at that time was often to place their children in institutions, a fate that Peter narrowly avoided. Attempts to define him or rationalize his idiosyncrasies were not only insufficient, but also irrelevant.
They minimized his abilities—those gifts that many recognized in him, from which so many people benefited. What mattered to Peter was only that he have the opportunity to overcome his challenges, the same as anybody else.
Like all of us, Peter hoped he would be recognized for his work, and in 2005 he was, receiving the sport’s highest honor: induction into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. But what he wanted more than anything was acceptance, and this is where the story gets complicated.
Peter was revered by those who knew him best, but for many who didn’t—as well as those who, in general, are made uncomfortable by people with quirks and special needs—the truth is that he was often misunderstood.
When I consider the impact he had on those who loved him most, I’m reminded of an interview I conducted with my friend Jim Grube, who was responsible for bringing Peter to Middlebury in 1980.
“You could be cynical and say Middlebury created a slot for someone like Pete, that we’re just a group of kind people who made a space for Pete,” Jim said. “Maybe there’s some truth to that, but the reality is that because Pete cares so much, there’s a real value in what he does.”
Peter’s lifework wasn’t easy to categorize: he was at once a water boy and a wise man. What makes his story so remarkable is that he never felt a tension between those two roles. He pursued his life’s work, the mundane and the mystical, with enthusiasm and vigor until his final day, August 5, 2009, when he passed away after suffering a heart attack on a fishing trip near his Cape May, New Jersey, home.
Now that he has departed the physical world, we are entrusted with the responsibility of preserving his legacy, contextualizing his life through our storytelling.
The choice, as always, is the same. Some may view his role within the lacrosse world with a skeptic’s eye. But I think most agree that we are better for having known Peter, whether we met him in waking life or in the world of moving images.
There are no statistics to describe what someone like Peter helped us find in our hearts—something hard to describe, but all at once beautiful, essential, and eternal.
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