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New faculty chair to enhance leadership in plant biology
18 May 2020
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Louis and Hedwig Sternberg
Louis and Hedwig Sternberg, Penn State alumnus Harold L. Kohn's grandparents.

Alumnus Harold L. Kohn and his wife Carol K. Kohn have pledged $2 million from the Kohn Charitable Trust to create the Louis and Hedwig Sternberg Chair in Plant Biology in the Eberly College of Science. The chair, which honors Harold’s grandparents, is designed to enhance Penn State’s position of leadership in plant biology.

The Kohns’ gift will be coupled with $500,000 in matching funds from the Eberly College of Science to create a permanent endowment of $2.5 million.

“This gift is a strong statement of confidence in Penn State’s research and teaching in plant biology,” said Douglas R. Cavener, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science. “The college is already recognized as a national leader in plant science. Our faculty members conduct world-class research and frequently make seminal discoveries that have real-world impact.

“The Kohns’ gift will allow us to recruit and retain a faculty leader and provide valuable resources for him or her to help take Penn State to the next level in this field,” Cavener explained. “This is a remarkable investment in our continued excellence, and we are grateful to the Kohns for their generosity and honored to host a chair recognizing Dr. Kohn’s grandparents.”

Harold’s maternal grandfather, Louis Sternberg, was a successful hops dealer in Germany when the National Socialist Party rose to power in the 1930s. By 1938, just before Kristallnacht, Louis, his wife Hedwig, and their younger daughter Ilse fled to the United States. Their older daughter, Martha, had preceded them, and they settled near her in Manhattan. Louis died in 1942 of complications from routine surgery. Hedwig then moved to Queens with Martha, by then married, to help care for Martha’s three young children: Harold and his sisters Lenore and Arlene. Hedwig died in 1965 following a stroke.

“Hedwig was the only grandparent I’ve ever known,” Harold Kohn said. “Her life had been dramatically altered by the suppression and destruction of individual rights in Germany. As an immigrant to this country, her social standing was completely changed. She had to learn a new language and adjust to a new culture. When my grandfather died, she had to continue on without him.

“She was a major caregiver to my sisters and me, and in a sense, she sacrificed her own life for us,” Harold continued. “I’ve been very fortunate by comparison. Through this gift, Carol and I are honoring Hedwig and her sacrifice as well as my grandfather, whose insight brought his family safely to the U.S.”

Read a biography of Louis and Hedwig Sternberg here. In 2018, the Kohns established a professorship of social justice and social policy at the University of Michigan to honor Harold’s paternal grandparents, Hermann and Amalie Kohn, who perished in Poland during the Holocaust.

The Kohns chose to name a faculty chair in plant biology because of its association with Louis Sternberg’s vocation in the botanical aspects of the brewing industry and Harold’s own interest in plant science.

“We know Penn State as a leader in plant biology. It has a long reputation of excellence, and we’re delighted by what we’ve seen here,” Harold said. “And supporting advances in plant science has tremendous potential for impact on the environment and climate, food security and human health.”

Harold Kohn received his doctorate in chemistry from Penn State in 1971. He served on the chemistry faculty at the University of Houston, where he was M.D. Anderson Professor of Chemistry, and later at the University of North Carolina, where he was a Kenan Distinguished Professor. He retired in 2015. During his career, Kohn received many research and teaching awards, including the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher Scholar Award and the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy’s prestigious Paul R. Dawson Biotechnology Award.

The Kohns’ gift will advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.