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Wilbur J. Cohen, 73, Dies; Architect of Social Security

May 19, 1987|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — Wilbur J. Cohen, the secretary of health, education and welfare in the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration who was also an architect of Social Security and Medicare, is dead at the age of 73.

His family said Cohen died in his sleep Sunday in Seoul, South Korea, where he was attending a symposium on the cross-cultural aspects of aging. The cause of death was not immediately determined.

In recent years, Cohen lobbied against Social Security cuts as founder and co-chairman of Save Our Security, a coalition of dozens of senior citizen groups, labor unions and civil rights organizations.

Top Welfare Expert

"He was without question America's leading expert on the entire field of social welfare legislation," said John Gronouski, a longtime friend and colleague at the University of Texas, where Cohen last taught. "His death leaves a tremendous gap in the entire field."

In the mid-1930s, Cohen helped draft the original Social Security Act while serving as a research assistant to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Cabinet Committee on Economic Security.

Throughout the John F. Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he held top HEW posts. He was responsible for handling about 65 major legislative proposals that became law, including such landmark measures as Medicare and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

He was HEW undersecretary from 1965 to 1968 and HEW secretary in 1968-69.

Cohen, the son of a variety store owner from Milwaukee, had come to Washington as a whiz kid in 1934 to work under one of his University of Wisconsin professors on the economic security committee.

Led Conference of Families

After leaving Johnson's Cabinet, Cohen was selected chairman of the White House Conference on Families in 1978. At that time he was dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan.

He retired as dean that same year but served on the faculty as a professor until 1983, when he went to teach at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Government at the University of Texas in Austin.

He once said that lessons learned in his father's store helped him lobby Congress. The key, he said, was "looking at the problem from the standpoint of the consumer."

Cohen was an avid stamp collector and, like President Reagan, enjoyed sawing and chopping wood for exercise and recreation.

Survivors include his wife, Eloise, who was with him in Korea, and sons Bruce Cohen of Silver Spring, Md., Christopher Cohen of Chicago and Stuart Cohen of Ann Arbor, Mich.

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