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Andrea Hunter Halgrimson, Published October 22 2011

The man behind the Fargo-Moorhead Open Forum

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second and final part of a series recalling the Open Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

The beginnings of the Fargo-Moorhead Open Forum go back to 1930.

That’s when a group known as the “Good Will Committee” met to organize programs to engage authoritative speakers on national and international issues and to present their views to the public.

Discussion after the lectures was always a part of the agenda.

Joseph W. Cohen was the guiding force in the Fargo-Moorhead Open Forum for many years. After serving as a director for 10 years and as its president for five years, a Forum editorial described Cohen’s contributions to the community:

“Mr. Cohen has become widely known both here and abroad because of … his uncanny ability in bringing diplomats and leaders to Fargo-Moorhead, in organizing interesting schedules for them, in packing auditoriums with eager listeners, and in getting significant questions into the limelight of general public discussion.

“The local Open Forums have attracted attention in government and diplomatic circles here and in foreign capitals. At times it has been evident that various personages have virtually vied with each other to participate.

“The result of the efforts of Mr. Cohen and his co-workers has been to give Fargo-Moorhead … as a site for expression of significant statements and views far beyond their importance politically and economically, and to focus attention on what is being said here.”

Cohen was born in Dora, Minn., on March 31, 1895, to parents who had come to America from Lithuania. He attended school in Akeley, Minn., graduating in 1912. He served in an artillery company during World War I and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a law degree in 1917.

Cohen came to Fargo in 1921 and was associated with Interstate Seed and Grain Co. He married Selma Simon in Minneapolis in 1928. In 1937, he became president of the Wilcoh Company, a wholesale potato concern.

Cohen served as vice-president of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra. He was one of the organizers of Fargo Temple Beth El, and in May 1961, he was honored by the temple at a recognition dinner for his “vision, effort and unswerving devotion” to the temple. He was also a leader in the building of the Civic Memorial Auditorium.

I was very fond of Joe for his kindness and gentleness to myself, and Mom and Gram were grateful for the 100-pound bags of potatoes he had delivered for their lefse-making every Thanksgiving and Christmas.

After Cohen’s death on June 13, 1961, a fund was established through the Fargo-Moorhead Area Foundation to sponsor Open Forum memorial lectures in his name. They lasted until 1967 when the Open Forum directors deactivated the organization.

The memorial speaker that I remember most vividly was Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who was born in Maine, Minn., on October 16, 1898.

At the time, Stewart Schlipf, Open Forum president, said, “The appearance of Justice Douglas is in the best radiation of the Open Forum and is a worthy tribute to the memory of Joe Cohen.”

Douglas spoke at the Fargo Central High School auditorium on May 6, 1964. Some 1,300 attended the lecture, during which he defended the court’s ruling against prayer in public schools and spoke of the civil rights struggle, the unrest in Southeast Asia and buying a good pair of hiking boots. The judge was a noted hiker and mountain climber.

After his lecture and the discussion that always followed Open Forum presentations, a reception was held at my parents’ home. Douglas was a hero of mine, and meeting him was a high point of my young life. My husband at the time was Fargo attorney Harold Halgrimson, and he was every bit as thrilled as I was to meet Douglas.

Readers can reach Forum columnist Andrea Hunter Halgrimson at ahalgrimson@forumcomm.com.