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Hundreds gather in tributes to Henry Knott, Israel Cohen Giant Food chairman remembered as a man 'totally without pretense'


GREENBELT -- If he were alive today, friends say, Israel Cohen probably would have been where he loved to be -- in one of his groceries, guiding a lost shopper to the sweet pickles aisle. Or insisting that a store clerk call him by his nickname, "Izzy."

But yesterday, there were only memories.

In a November chill, more than 700 family members, friends and colleagues trekked to Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt to pay tribute to the man who made Landover-based Giant Food Inc. one of the nation's leading supermarket chains.

"He was one of a kind," said Frank Perdue, chairman of the executive committee of Perdue Foods and a longtime friend.

Thousands of Marylanders ate Mr. Cohen's food and walked through his stores, but few really knew the Giant Food chairman and chief executive officer, a solitary man who died the night before Thanksgiving at age 83 after a long bout with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer.

"I'll just be glad when this day is over," Giant President Pete L. Manos said moments before the memorial tribute, as he stepped outside for air. "Tough thing."

At 2 p.m., under dimmed chandeliers in a cavernous hall, a hush fell over the mourners as they observed a moment of silence. At the same time, 26,000 company employees in more than 160 Giant Food stores from Washington to New Jersey stood silent in Mr. Cohen's honor.

Afterward, five Giant senior executives took turns on stage sharing remembrances of Mr. Cohen, who was known as a detail man, a racehorse owner, a bridge player, a father of two and a father figure at Giant.

"As a man, he was totally without pretense," said Alvin Dobbin, Giant's senior vice president for operations.

Mr. Cohen used to describe the office suite he shared with Mr. Dobbin as "two rooms connected by a bathroom." He answered his own office phone. When a caller asked what title he held, Mr. Cohen would say he "worked for the company." Asked about a decision, he would tell his associates, "I'm not going to tell you what to do. You make your own mistakes."

He abolished the company's executive dining room because he believed company officers should not eat apart from other employees. He hated the word "employee," but loved the expression "Giant family." He once sent doughnuts to striking Giant workers.

But Mr. Cohen drew the line when it came to his competitors. In a short film montage at the end of yesterday's memorial tribute, Mr. Cohen was captured remarking, "I only cry at supermarket openings. Not ours. Safeway's."

In some ways, Mr. Cohen was a simple man. When he interviewed attorney David W. Rutstein for a job at Giant 17 years ago, Mr. Cohen interrupted the applicant's lawyerly presentation and said, "You're making this too complicated. You're going to write the briefs, and I'm going to sell the potatoes."

"Now, instead of asking Izzy for advice . . . we will have to ask ourselves, 'What would Izzy want us to do?' " said Mr. Rutstein, Giant's senior vice president-general counsel.

Mr. Cohen left some answers in his will, giving control of his voting stock in the company to four senior executives and his sister, Lillian Cohen Solomon.

Yesterday, Ms. Solomon wept.

But even as family and friends mourned, Giant moved on, opening a new store at 8 a.m. in Owings Mills. Mr. Manos, whom Mr. Cohen named president three years ago, said, "Izzy, it is business as usual."

Mr. Manos was only carrying out orders. He said Mr. Cohen used to jab his finger at him and admonish, "Take care of the business."

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