Activist, civic leader Helen Kohlman dies at 81

Helen Kohlman Show caption
Helen Kohlman

Helen S. Kohlman, a lawyer, civic activist and leader in the local Jewish community, died Wednesday. She was 81.

“My mother accomplished some incredible things in her life, and it was always with a complete devotion to this city, which she loved,” said her son, Neil Kohlman.

A lifelong New Orleanian, Kohlman graduated from Eleanor McMain Senior High School and Loyola University School of Law. One of only three women in her class at law school, she was the valedictorian of the class and an editor of the Law Review, while raising three small children and having her fourth while in school.

She had a 45-year law career, practicing with her late husband, Herman, as Kohlman & Kohlman.

She served as an ad hoc judge in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court and was a member of the committee that rewrote Louisiana’s domestic and community property laws, eliminating the “head and master regime” that allowed a husband to encumber or sell community property without the wife’s permission or knowledge.

Kohlman was a longtime political activist, especially for causes that promoted racial and gender equality. She was a past president of the Independent Women’s Organization and a founding member of the Committee of 21, which was formed to solicit and promote female candidates for political office.

She served on the New Orleans Library Board for 32 years, having first been appointed by Mayor Dutch Morial. During her term she helped oversee construction of new libraries in Algiers, Gentilly and Broadmoor.

She also was a member of the Rivergate Development Corp. board and was instrumental in negotiating the contracts that brought Harrah’s casino to New Orleans. Her most recent involvement was in restoring the Saenger Theatre.

Mayor Marc Morial awarded her the Mayor’s Medal of Honor Award for her longtime service to her city, especially the libraries.

As an active member of the Jewish community and a staunch supporter of the state of Israel, Kohlman chaired the Israel Bonds campaign in New Orleans for many years, raising millions of dollars for investment in that country. She served on the board of the Willow Wood Nursing Home for the Jewish Aged, ultimately becoming the president, and helped plan what was to become the Woldenberg Village retirement community.

She was an adjunct professor at the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University for more than 20 years, teaching business law and more than once winning an award as “best professor.”

Survivors include two sons, Neil and Ira Kohlman; two daughters, Sandra Friedman and Marsha Morak; a sister, Marion Slipman Cohen; and seven grandchildren.

Funeral services will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at Congregation Gates of Prayer, 4000 West Esplanade Ave., Metairie. Visitation will begin at 12:30 p.m. Burial will follow at the Hebrew Rest Cemetery on Frenchmen Street. After the graveside ceremony, the family will receive visitors at the home of Neil and Hannah Kohlman, 1710 Valence St.