We should all strive to continue Ernie Cohen’s pledge to make Clay County a better place

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Ernie Cohen was more than the man with a microphone who told jokes and poked fun of friends on behalf of several Clay County nonprofits.

He was our friend. Our best friend.

Ernie embraced a lot of projects, like Clay Behavioral Health Center, Kids First of Florida, Haven Hospice, Clay County Senior Adult Advocacy Council and Clay SafetyNet Alliance. He also proudly served as the master of ceremonies for the Chamber of Commerce, Concert on the Green, the Rotary Club of Orange Park, Orange Park Medical Center, Golden Years Gala, Orange Park Mall Festival of Freedom, Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk, Clay County Monument for Fallen Warriors and the annual recognition for the Vietnam Veterans Association.

He did more than lend his voice and humor as an emcee for a project. He gave us his heart and passion. In return, all he wanted was a smile in return.

Ernie Cohen was one of the first friends I made when I came to Clay Today. His gregarious appetite for life was hard to ignore. His tireless work made him more than an asset to the organizations he represented. He was one of the best friends this county has ever known.

My dear friend passed away Monday night following a short illness.

To many, he was considered an emissary for a variety of special projects. To others, he was the master of ceremonies or a community liaison. To everyone, he was a faithful friend.

To Andre Van Heerden, he simply was “Ernie Lionheart.”

Van Heerden met Ernie when the two worked at The Mercy Network, which eventually became the Clay SafetyNet Alliance. That was a group of nonprofits and community and religious leaders who combined their efforts to solve the problems of the needy.

“Ernie Lionheart wanted to make Clay County a better place,” Van Heerden posted on social media. “Behind the scenes, Ernie sat on steering committees, planning meetings and was involved in other initiatives aimed at improving the quality of life for the citizens of Clay County.

“I don't know how he managed to always be so upbeat, have such high energy, and maintain his limitless sense of humor. Whenever you were in a group with Ernie Lionheart, you knew something funny was coming. The only time Ernie Lionheart's humor waned, was about a month ago when his health took a serious downturn. He and I prayed together and tried to make sense of his fast decline.”

Van Heerden said the best way to honor Ernie’s contributions and memory is to continue his work.

“The void that Ernie Lionheart's passing leaves in our close-knit community, reminds us that life is fragile and we should make the most of every moment, every day,” he said. “We should sow into the lives of others and not only live to please ourselves. Those who knew Ernie Lionheart knew he was committed to serving others and make this world a better place. May we each recommit to doing the same.”

Amen.

Ernie is survived by his wife, Joann, and his two daughters and sons-in-law: Sharon and Bradley Herbst of Jacksonville and Jackie and Brian Bukstein of Chicago; a sister and brother-in-law, Shelley and Mark Schulman of Cleveland; and, four grandchildren: Sydney and Andrew Herbst and Joshua and Zachary Bukstei.

He also leaves behind a county that was a better place because of his gracious contributions.

For now, there is an emptiness and pain. We lost our best friend.

“Every day, every encounter, every meeting, Ernie brought so much,” said Clay Behavioral CEO Irene Toto. “Because of him, people who knew who we were, what we did. He not only was involved in fundraising but in friend-raising, as well. I don’t mean just money, but Ernie got people to support our mission and the people we served.”

It was difficult for Toto to talk about Ernie without sobbing.

“He would love it; he would hate it,” she said.

As we move forward, his memory will live forever as long as we dedicate ourselves to being better people.

We should always remember to find the good in every situation. We should find joy in people and ignore the noisy distractions that try to divide us.

We should smile and laugh. More importantly, we should pledge to make others smile and laugh.

That’s how Ernie Cohen lived his life. And we are all better for it.

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