Benjamin Kohl, Temple professor, expert on Bolivia

Posted: August 01, 2013

AS A TEMPLE University professor, Ben Kohl had this quaint idea that his students should think.

Not just about whom to text next, or whether to attend a weekend party, but about society. About social problems and social justice.

In other words, how to fix what's wrong with the world.

" 'Learn, read, think' were his watch words," said his wife, Linda Farthing-Kohl. "He was always looking for ways to engage his students, to get them to think about the world."

Benjamin Kohl, a professor in Temple's Geography and Urban Studies Department, a leading expert on Bolivia and an urban redeveloper who made nearly a dozen decrepit properties in Philadelphia livable, died July 25 of a massive heart attack. He was 59 and lived in Fairmount, and had formerly lived in Mount Airy.

Ben was an academic who didn't hesitate to get his hands dirty. In his youth, he worked as an auto mechanic and elevator repairman.

He was a skilled handyman who, his wife said, "could fix anything."

After he fell in love with the South American nation of Bolivia in the '80s, he and his wife lived in the impoverished country for several years and wrote extensively on the country's problems.

Ben, who had a degree in engineering, specialized in promoting nonpolluting energy sources and other technological improvements for a country long wracked by violent military coups and endemic poverty.

Ben's sudden death was a shock to family and colleagues. He had been in excellent health, and when the family lived in Mount Airy, he thought nothing of pedaling his bicycle the 18 miles to Temple and back.

He and his wife began renovating several dilapidated houses and commercial properties in the city, restoring them to life, one of them being a former candy store at 28th Street and Girard Avenue, dating to the '20s. Older neighborhood residents stopped by during work on the building to say how they fondly remembered buying candy from the people who lived upstairs.

Ben was born in St. Louis, where his parents, Daniel and Seena Kohl, were scholars and teachers. He spent many years in San Francisco with Linda Farthing, whom he met in 1982. They moved to Bolivia in the 1980s, enduring the most brutal of government upheavals while working to improve the country.

He received a bachelor's degree in anthropology from San Francisco State University in 1986, a master's in engineering and policy, technology and human affairs from Washington University in St. Louis in 1992, and a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from Cornell University in 1999.

He began teaching at Temple University in 2001.

Lindsay Marques Fowler, a friend of one of his nieces and a former student, wrote, "I could feel his passion and love for the field when he spoke. It was evident he really cared about social justice and was really trying to make the world, not just the U.S., a better place."

William W. Goldsmith, a Cornell professor, wrote, "He lived well - a model scholar, teacher, friend and activist. One of the best persons I've ever known, just gone."

Others mentioned Ben's sense of humor, his ability to "laugh at the absurdities of life." He enjoyed playing the guitar and tooling about on his motorcycle.

Among the books he and his wife wrote together is From the Mines to the Streets: A Bolivian Activist's Life, about the life of activist Felix Muruchi, published in 2011. Other books and numerous articles discuss the political and economic life of the country.

Their most recent book, concerning the current political situation in Bolivia and the policies of its president, Evo Morales, is awaiting publication.

Besides his wife and his parents, he is survived by a daughter, Maya Farthing-Kohl; a son, Minka Farthing-Kohl; two brothers, George and Paul, and a sister, Martha Kohl.

Services: Memorial service 4 p.m. Aug. 24, Spring Gardens Community Garden, 19th and North streets.

Donations may be made to the Temple University Undergraduate Scholarship 2020 Fund, to aid low-income African-American students.

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