On Friday afternoon, a small group of Yale alumni, faculty, students and New Haven community members gathered in Dwight Chapel for a memorial service. The covers of the programs ushers handed out to audience members featured a picture of a serious-looking man with a pair of glasses pushed up onto his forehead. The man, holding a pipe in his mouth, peered out at his viewer from under furrowed eyebrows.
Those who knew Herb Cahoon, a former director of Volunteer Services at Yale, said he was just as “probing” as he looked in his picture. Cahoon, who passed away Aug. 18 at the age of 91, leaves behind him a legacy of community consciousness. Volunteer Services, which Cahoon led from 1960 to 1982, later merged into Dwight Hall. During his career at the University, Cahoon organized “freedom rides” during the civil rights movement, counseled conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War and facilitated Dwight Hall’s role as a mediator during the 1970s Black Panther trials in New Haven.
The memorial service Friday highlighted Cahoon’s influence on and inspiration of his family, friends, colleagues and students.
“He pushed, he prodded, he needled and inspired,” said Pamela Bisbee-Simonds, former Dwight Hall program director.
Cahoon drew on his extensive social-work experience to provide guidance to Elis for almost a quarter of a century. During the 22 years that he was employed by the University, Cahoon helped to increase the number of students involved in community service from 300 to more than 1,000, according to the Dwight Hall Web site. Cahoon and former General Secretary of Dwight Hall David Warren worked together to create the Dwight Hall Summer Internship Program, which in 1969 began offering summer employment to students interested in performing community service in the New Haven area. He helped students to establish non-profit organizations such as the New Haven Halfway House and Marrakech, Inc., which supports disabled children and adults.
Johnny Scafidi, the current program director of Dwight Hall, said Cahoon was an “organizer” in the purest sense. When students came to him with service ideas, he challenged them to think through the details to make their projects manageable and sustainable. His catchphrase: “Who wants it? Who needs it? Who’s going to do it when you graduate?”
At the service Friday, John Abelson ’79 recalled Cahoon’s role in opening a bike shop that employed troubled teenagers. Cahoon helped the Yale students involved in the initiative find a physical space for the shop on Wall Street, where he also played a key role in recruiting a loyal customer base.
Cahoon continued to influence Dwight Hall after his retirement in 1982. For the 25 years following, he remained active as an emeritus consultant.
Chris Lewine, Dwight Hall’s public relations coordinator, said the former director’s methods and ideals remain integral to the current Dwight Hall, which now exists as an umbrella organization with 70 student-run community service initiatives with nearly 3,500 student participants.
Scafidi said Cahoon’s way of questioning students influences how Dwight Hall operates today.
“Maybe it’s a little more sophisticated now in some ways, but it’s still based on Herb’s probing spirit,” he said.
Cahoon became a fatherly figure to Yale students by not only helping them with their community service projects but also caring about them as individuals, said Henry Freeman, a former general secretary of Dwight Hall and a colleague of Cahoon’s.
“Yale is a great place for nurturing a student’s head,” Freeman said. “Herb cared about students in terms of nurturing their hearts.”
Sarah Cahoon-Poindexter, a teacher who followed her father into a public service career, said she remembers her father as being a “great” though abnormal parent of the 1970s. She called him “Herb,” although he always wished she had called him “Pops.”
Cahoon-Poindexter said her father asked his children to let him know whether they wanted to smoke pot, since he could purchase it for them at Yale and ensure that it was good-quality pot and not laced with other drugs.
“He took all the fun out of sex and drugs,” she said.
She said his proudest moment as a father was when his daughters came home angry from a party because all their friends had been complaining about their parents and they had nothing to say.
“We were totally socially outcast because our parents were totally cool and everyone else’s parents were crap,” she said.
Jean Cahoon, who said she sees her husband’s outgoing personality and mannerisms in Cahoon-Poindexter, said her favorite trait of her husband’s was his relaxed and laid-back demeanor.
“He was so comfortable in his own skin,” she said. “He was so accepting of everyone else, but of himself too.”
She remembered after the service how he always valued his family, loved camping and was a great squash player.
During the memorial service, speakers said Cahoon will be remembered for his eternal youth, big laugh and the way he would often forgo words and use sounds and wild hand gestures instead. Freeman said schizophrenic homeless people would wander into Dwight Hall looking for Cahoon, who would calm them down with the words, “Damn it, you’re not making any sense.”
“He just had an incredible gift. He was an incredible human being,” Freeman said.
Cahoon is survived by his wife, his daughters Sarah Cahoon Poindexter and Catherine Burnett, his grandson Wade Poindexter and his brother Dana Cahoon.