By Ian Hope
Edmonton, Alberta -- September 13, 2017 -- Alberta has lost an industry icon with the passing of Jack Cohen, better known as “Jasper Jack.” He passed away on September 4, 2017 surrounded by his family which included his wife of 52 years, Marilyn, and his children Max, Cherie and Dave. It’s hard to believe that he had just celebrated 72 years in the automotive parts business, having started working in the industry at only nine years of age!
When you look at the full story of his life, it reads like an adventure novel, (with a love story thrown in, of course). It’s a story of overcoming life’s obstacles and challenges … surviving incredible odds and hardships until finally, things started turning around for him.
Born in Belgium in 1936, Jack and his twin brother Leon were only four years old when the Nazis overran their country. Their very wise and caring father, fearing for the boys, took them to a country orphanage in an attempt to keep them safe. The boys never saw their father, mother or teenaged sister after that day. All were later found to have perished in the death camps. Jack and his twin brother were also eventually put on a train, suspected of heading to one of these camps. Incredibly the train was stopped by the Queen of Belgium and the boys were able to slip away from danger along with about 150 other very fortunate children.
They were brought to Toronto a while later, adopted by Harry and Lillian Cohen, and later moved to Edmonton. In 1946, Harry started Jasper Auto Parts in downtown Edmonton just a block north of Jasper Ave. At the time he had nothing to peddle but a truckload of Model T rear ends that he’d hauled from Winnipeg. This was the humble beginning that would lead to much greater things for the Cohens in later years.
Jack went to work with his adoptive father almost immediately. quitting school at an early age to do what he loved most: work with auto parts. When Harry died, Jack took over the business, which by that time had moved to the St. Albert Trail. In 1992 that property was sold to the Alberta government as part of their transportation corridor.
Jack bought Windsor Truck Parts on the south side and continued to run Jasper Auto Parts from there. He owned and operated other businesses over the years, including RFC in Red Deer, Arcade Automatic Transmissions and Bargain Glass, still operating next door to the Jasper office. During his years in business his list of colleagues and collaborators reads like a Who’s Who of the Alberta automotive parts business. He even brought in Mohammed Ali once to help promote the sport of boxing in Alberta. People in the entertainment business, politicians, business moguls, high society folk and in fact from literally every level of Edmonton’s social fabric … Jack knew them and found the best in them.
On the personal side, Jack married Marilyn, the love of his life and their three children followed and eventually they were thrilled to welcome six grandchildren to the family. Max currently lives in Phoenix, where Jack and Marilyn had spent happy times over many of the more recent winters. Dave runs Western Auto and Truck Parts in Calgary and Cherie has been taking care of Jasper Auto Parts.
I once asked Jack what was “that one big thing” that he’d learned in his 72 years in the business. I expected him to tell me about a recycling process or executing a long-term vision, or maybe some well guarded secret to do with buying low and selling high. To my surprise his answer was “it’s not about the cars. It’s about the people.” He told me that his biggest pride was being able to deal with people of all ethnic backgrounds; he truly was passionate about being able to connect and communicate with literally everyone.
I’ve realized just how right Jack was. A person’s success, especially a business owner, is more dependent on getting along with people than on any other variable in the business.
Jack’s obituary in the Edmonton Journal got it right. “There was and will only ever be one Jack Cohen, as unique and special as they come.”