Scientist Turned Wordsmith Impacts Students

Ted Cohen on Antarctic expedition

UW graduate student Ted Cohen on the Antarctic expedition in 1961.

Theodore “Ted” Cohen (’60 BS, ’61 MS, ’66 PhD L&S) authored five novels that share his life experiences—facts wrapped in fiction—that many Badgers will recognize. During the process of writing his first novel, “Full Circle,” Cohen realized there were points in his life where he made choices that radically changed his future. He recognized there were several people who were influential at those key junctures, and he began a search to thank them.

Cohen grew up in Milwaukee during the 1950s, where he passed the amateur radio licensing exam long before he was old enough to test for a driver’s license. As call sign WN9VZL and W9VZL (currently N4XX), he had conversations with other ham radio operators around the world before and after school. In fact, Cohen enrolled in Spanish class in high school so he could better communicate with his radio friends in Spanish-speaking countries.

In addition to his technical interests, Cohen was musically talented and played violin at an extremely high level before setting music aside to enter college. He spent two years studying engineering in Milwaukee, then transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to finish his bachelor’s degree. Cohen did well in engineering but, once in Madison, discovered a passion for physics. He transferred to the College of Letters & Science and the physics major—losing 29 credits—and was never happier. To meet the requirements of his new major, he enrolled in English literature and geology. Both areas proved far more interesting and influential than Cohen could have imagined at the time.

The teaching assistant for Cohen’s geology class was Martin “Marty” Halpern (’61 MS, ’63 PhD L&S), who was completing a doctoral degree with Professor of Sedimentary Geology Robert Dott, Jr. Halpern and Professor Dott planned an expedition to the Antarctic during the Austral summer of 1961-62. Halpern invited Cohen to sign on as a field assistant, and he jumped at the chance.

After the expedition, Cohen returned to the University, married his college sweetheart, Susan Antman (’64 BS L&S), and finished his doctoral degree in geophysics with Professor Robert P. Meyer. He spent the next several decades in the Washington, D.C., area working in the defense industry as an engineer and scientist, generating countless technical reports and papers. Ted continued his amateur radio avocation and co-authored two books on the subject of shortwave radio propagation in the 1990s.

Ted Cohen's Death by Wall Street

The most recent and award-winning novel by Ted Cohen. Book jacket art courtesy of AuthorHouse.

Upon retirement, it occurred to Cohen that his life experiences would make good novels, and he began to write. Cohen included footnotes in his writing, just as he had in his technical reports, to expand on his points. Publishers informed him that footnotes did not belong in a novel. So, Cohen self-published—footnotes and all—with a supportive team at AuthorHouse. His first novel, “Full Circle: A Dream Denied, A Vision Fulfilled,” was published in September 2009, chockfull of his youth in Milwaukee, his college days at UW-Madison and his return to music.

In late 2009, Cohen mailed the UW-Madison Department of Physics a copy of “Full Circle,” a check and a note, reading, “In partial repayment of a debt long overdue.” He explained that it was Professor of Physics Joseph Dillinger who had challenged him to change majors (from engineering to physics), which altered the course of his life. The gift Cohen sent was applied to a fund in the late Professor Dillinger’s name to benefit student teaching assistants, which it has. In fact, the graduate student who received the Joseph Dillinger Award for Teaching Excellence in 2010, Vikram Adhikarla, said, “Receiving an award related to such a distinguished teacher and professor of the department makes me feel extremely honored and has left me pleasantly surprised.”

Cohen’s expedition to the Antarctic became the basis for his next writing project, a trilogy of mystery novels, “Frozen in Time,” “Unfinished Business” and “End Game.” He sent a surprise to the Department of Geosciences before the books were finished. This time the note and gift honored the major professor on the expedition, Professor Emeritus Dott. Dott was delighted to hear from Cohen and added his gift to a fund that supports student research and field work in the sedimentary geology field.

Cohen credits the University with introducing him to English literature, to great writing and laying the foundation for his own books. His latest gift honored the Department of English for this knowledge and will be used to fund student awards.

“All the gifts were meant to thank people,” said Cohen. “The important thing is that there was a debt to be paid.”

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