Benjamin H. Kohl, Temple prof, Bolivia expert

Posted: August 05, 2013

Benjamin H. Kohl, 59, of Philadelphia, a Temple University professor and a leading expert on Bolivia, died Thursday, July 25, of heart failure at his home.

Born in Oakland, Calif., Dr. Kohl grew up in St. Louis. He lived in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia, and before that in West Philadelphia and Mount Airy.

Dr. Kohl earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology from San Francisco State University in 1986, a master's in engineering and technology at Washington University in St. Louis in 1992, and a doctorate in city and regional planning from Cornell University in 1999.

He had worked in Temple's geography and urban studies department since 2001.

In a statement on the department's website, officials lauded Dr. Kohl as "a phenomenal teacher, colleague, mentor, and friend."

"He cared deeply about students and was extremely supportive of junior faculty. Ben's commitment to social justice permeated all aspects of his life, and it is difficult to imagine the department without him," the statement read.

Dr. Kohl was a passionate scholar and teacher who was among the world's leading English-language Bolivianists. He became smitten with the South American country in the 1980s, and lived there with his wife, Linda Farthing.

He took an unusual route to academia, returning to the world of letters at age 40 after working for more than a decade as an auto mechanic and elevator constructor in San Francisco, and after several years bringing solar- and wind-power projects to rural Bolivians.

His 2011 book, From the Mines to the Streets: A Bolivian Activist's Life, written with his wife, tells of a lifelong activist who barely survived Bolivia's military dictatorships.

A 2006 book, also written with his wife, Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance, chronicled a political approach that minimized government intervention in the economic and welfare aspects of Bolivian society.

"It came at enormous cost for the people of Bolivia, especially the poor," Farthing said.

Another book the two cowrote, due to come out next spring, looks at the current government's efforts to stabilize the country, which has been wracked by military coups and poverty.

Nicole Fabricant, assistant professor of anthropology at Towson University in Towson, Md., said Dr. Kohl was "an intellectual and political hero for me."

"I have always respected his deep commitment to some of the world's most vulnerable people. He, in many ways, was one of these rare intellectuals," she said. "He wrote with political conviction, while at the same time remained grounded in what matters - history, family, and community."

Dr. Kohl and his wife rehabilitated a dozen abandoned buildings in Philadelphia to make them livable. He was devoted to mentoring the next generation, here and in Bolivia, his wife said.

Besides his wife of 28 years, whom he met in San Francisco, he is survived by his parents, Daniel Howard Kohl and Seena Bernstein Kohl; a son, Minka Farthing-Kohl; a daughter, Maya Farthing-Kohl; two brothers; a sister; and nine nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, at the Spring Gardens Community Garden, North Street between 18th and 19th Streets, Philadelphia. Interment is private.

Donation checks, made payable to Temple University with "Ben Kohl" in the memo line, may be sent to the CLA Development Office, 1234 Anderson Hall, 1114 W. Berks St., Philadelphia 19122.


Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8102 or bcook@phillynews.com.

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