MISSOULA – Betsy Cohen, a hard-driving journalist, gifted equestrian and friend-maker extraordinaire, embodied the candle that burns twice as brightly but burns half as long. Just 49, she died of metastatic breast cancer Monday, March 3, 2014, at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula.
No one has embraced life as fully and joyfully as Betsy or magnetically attracted so many people of every stripe.
She was as feisty as she was gentle, as forthright as she was tactful, as full of wonder as she was of wisdom. Her loyalty was fierce, her laughter infectious. Betsy had a delightful, sometimes outrageous sense of humor that withstood crushing deadline pressure and scarcely dimmed during the nearly three years she coped with cancer. Recalling how, as a child, she once holed up in a closet and ate all the Girl Scout cookies she was assigned to sell always reduced her to hysterics. With fits of laughter, she’d describe the time her skirt fell off at a Missoula County Public Schools board meeting.
She spoke a colorful language all her own, some adapted from her eminently quotable grandmother, Mamie Cohen Magil, the rest inspired by her vivid imagination.
Elizabeth Ann Cohen was born Oct. 25, 1964, to Deborah and Dr. Gary Cohen at San Diego Naval Hospital. She grew up in Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., as part of a large extended family. With them, she often summered at the family compound on the northern shore of Lake Erie, in Canada.
People who knew her wouldn’t be surprised to learn her father is a well-known psychiatrist, her mother a retired school counselor to whose house relatives traditionally flocked for Thanksgiving. Decades later, Betsy’s home in Missoula would likewise become a social hub.
Betsy’s family influenced her in many other ways as well. Her mother introduced her to skiing when she was only 3. Soon after, Grandmother Mamie acquainted her with horse racing, often taking her to the track. Between them, they engendered in Betsy a lasting passion for skiing and all things equine.
The time Betsy spent at Lake Erie with her dynamic great-aunt Ruth Reiman, a history and English teacher, also shaped the woman she would become.
Betsy graduated from Amherst High School in 1982. She headed west after graduating in 1986 from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, N.Y., where she’d earned a bachelor’s degree in English and played varsity lacrosse.
Departing New York in search of adventure, Betsy took a summer job in Glacier National Park, where she made friends who enticed her to move to Missoula. She came for the skiing at Snowbowl but stayed to explore life’s possibilities – an exploration that ended only with her death.
Her early Missoula jobs included waiting tables at the original Mustard Seed restaurant, in downtown Missoula, and working with at-risk youths at Missoula Youth Homes.
Starting in 1986, she also put to use her prowess as a downhill skier as a longtime member of the Snowbowl Ski Patrol and Pro Patrol. Once, when a fellow ski patroller was swept away by an avalanche, rescuers encountered treacherous snow conditions. At great personal risk, Betsy reached her badly injured colleague first, providing critical aid and comfort. The National Ski Patrol awarded Betsy the Purple Merit Award for her heroism that day. She was a strong and beautiful skier, gracefully skiing any line in any condition on any mountain.
One day, while biding her time in the ski patrollers’ warming hut, she decided she needed a plan for her future that extended beyond the ski slopes. Journalism – a natural outlet for her curiosity, outgoing personality and love of reading and writing – proved just the ticket.
In 1996, Betsy earned a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Montana. As part of her studies, she completed an unpaid internship at the Missoulian – an introduction to the newspaper that eventually became her professional home. Immediately after finishing her graduate degree, however, Betsy took a reporting job at the Montana Standard, in Butte. In her two years there, she covered government and the environment and developed a deep fondness for the community’s character and characters.
During her years in Butte, Betsy partnered with the love of her life: Missoulian photographer Michael Gallacher, with whom she shared the rest of her life.
Betsy in 1998 landed a reporting job back at the Missoulian. In short order, she established herself as a valued and award-winning reporter, a veritable utility infielder, for the Missoula newspaper. She covered at various times business and the economy; higher education, including the University of Montana; public schools; and the police beat. She also worked on general assignment and, as an associate editor, fine-tuned copy and helped mentor interns and younger reporters.
Betsy had an unmatched ability to cultivate news sources – a measure of the trust she earned every day. Her caring nature and disarming, down-to-earth manner stood her in good stead. Her community connections were broad and deep.
She loved the fast-paced pursuit of breaking news but also wrote a steady stream of feature stories capturing the lives of both average Joes and important, powerful Montanans. For almost her entire Missoulian career, she loved working Sundays because they were such unpredictable news days. Her motto for Sundays, “Expect the unexpected,” prepared her for everything but the flock of emus that once chased her on assignment.
Betsy found special joy in collaborating with Michael on many assignments. When word first reached the newsroom that the FBI had captured the notorious Unabomber in a remote cabin near Lincoln, Michael raced to the scene after grabbing his camera and the first reporter he saw on his way out the door. It happened to be the new reporting intern, Betsy, and they introduced themselves on a headlong rush to the biggest story of 1996. Over the years, the duo produced word-and-picture stories that shared for readers everything from the explosive danger of the 2007 Black Cat fire, near Frenchtown, to the grace and beauty of the wild horses of the Pryor Mountains.
During her Missoulian tenure, Betsy covered a dizzying array of issues – from forest fires to political brushfires, from community strife to campus life. In 2004, she extensively probed a million-dollar deficit in the University of Montana’s athletic budget, linked to improper accounting and poor budget oversight. Her stories helped UM officials steer the program back on track. At the Montana Standard, her work included covering the complexities of one of the nation’s most challenging environmental cleanup operations.
Among the nearly 4,000 articles she wrote for the Missoulian were many hundreds chronicling heartwarming moments, successes big and small, important milestones and all manner of adversities overcome. She said she felt honored to cover the joys, accomplishments, struggles and tragedies of her community.
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In 2002, Betsy won a reporting fellowship with the International Center for Journalists. She traveled to Northern Ireland to track down Catholics and Protestants who, through the Project Children program, had spent childhood summers in Montana.
She returned to Missoula with a powerful series of stories connecting Montanans to the peaceful future emerging thousands of miles away. Michael joined her on that project, and his photographs combined with Betsy’s words for another award-winning package.
She threw herself into work until the end, with her last byline appearing in the Jan. 8, 2014, Missoulian.
Her stories garnered many awards. In 2009, she won the Montana Newspaper Association award for best business reporter as well as the Best of the West award for breaking news. The year before, she took home the Society of Professional Journalists, Pacific Northwest, award for best lifestyle feature. In 2003, she received the Suburban Newspapers of America award for best feature and the National Marrow Donor Program award for outstanding media coverage.
Betsy made time for freelance writing, too. From 2006 to 2008, she was a contributing editor to the internationally circulated Modern Arabian Horse magazine, in Aurora, Colo. Besides writing feature stories, she helped editors develop story ideas for other freelancers.
She made her mark in journalism in other ways as well. For example, in 2007, she was an Education Writers Association fellow in New York City. In 2003, she was a guest speaker at the Northwest Publisher and Editors annual conference in Portland, Ore. And, the year before, she was an International Center for Journalists fellow in Washington, D.C.
Outside work, Betsy found joy near and far. She loved Saturday-morning hikes in Crazy Canyon, where she often stood in the dappled sunlight beneath the giant ponderosa pine she called her “wishing tree.” Farther afield, with Michael at her side, she traveled not only to Ireland but also to France, Italy and Mexico. The couple regularly visited family in New York; Florida; and Glenwood Springs, Colo., Michael’s hometown.
Home for Betsy and Michael has been a cozy cottage within walking distance of Mount Sentinel. There, every summer, Betsy filled a window box and garden beds with flowers as vibrant as her personality: lobelia, lavender, gaillardia, macedonia and million bells.
Sharing their home were countless, welcome visitors: family members, friends from around the country, and many Missoulian interns and employees in transition – as well as these people’s pets. A Fourth of July strawberry-shortcake bash was an annual draw to the Cohen-Gallacher residence.
Visitors could count on being greeted at the back door by Betsy and Michael’s regal golden retriever, Delphi, and fractious Pembroke Welsh corgi, Millie.
Betsy’s other beloved pet and partner was Impressive Jewel, a bay Hungarian warmblood mare renowned for once leaping a 4-foot fence to escape a one-antlered moose. Jewel reigns over Betsy’s home away from home, Kootenai Creek Equestrian Center, at the base of St. Mary Peak, in the Bitterroot Valley. Nothing brought Betsy greater happiness or sense of peace than an afternoon with Jewel, friends and her closest thing to family at “the ranch.“
Betsy had owned and competed horses in equestrian events since childhood. Just weeks before her death, she was gearing up to show Jewel in hunter and equitation classes at A-rated shows throughout the West this summer.
A Montana Hunter Jumper Association Board member from 2009 to 2012, Betsy was a tough competitor and an excellent sport. Her finesse in the saddle won her stacks of ribbons, and her warmth and supportiveness won the hearts of fellow riders and show organizers and volunteers. One of her proudest moments was winning, with Jewel, the 2010 MHJA year-end award in the 2’6” hunter division.
Just last summer, when effective chemotherapy enabled her to hoist herself back into the saddle, she won an equitation-over-fences class at Rebecca Farm, in Kalispell. The applause was thunderous.
In 2008, friends lining Higgins Avenue cheered just as loudly as she crossed the finish line of the Missoula Marathon. She completed the 26.2-mile race in 5 hours, 15 seconds.
Four years earlier, she’d tackled a quite different challenge: baking, over the course of a year, 40 cakes to commemorate her 40th birthday. She added great joy to the lives of – and a few inches to the girth of – the many friends and colleagues who shared the baked bounty.
Betsy held her own through most of her race against cancer. Her downward spiral was short but startling in its suddenness. A close cadre of friends she considered sisters comforted her and held her close to the end, along with Michael and their families.
Betsy rocked Montana with her arrival and has done so again with her passing. No one, but no one, can fill her size-5 shoes.
Surviving her is her partner, Michael Gallacher, of Missoula; parents, Gary and Debby Cohen of Amherst, N.Y.; brother, Jonathan Cohen and sister-in-law Clara of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; and brother, David Cohen and sister-in-law Norah of Buffalo.
Other survivors include Michael’s brothers, Walter Gallacher and his wife, Sarah Hess, and Patrick Gallacher of Glenwood Springs, Colo., and Daniel Gallacher and his wife, Cynthia Ford, of Missoula; many uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews on both Betsy’s and Michael’s sides of the family; and a record number of devoted friends.
In lieu of flowers, Betsy’s family suggests donations to the Montana Cancer Institute Foundation, 500 W. Broadway, Missoula, MT 59802, or to the Humane Society of Western Montana, 5930 Highway 93 S., Missoula, MT 59804.