Film captures one man's team spirit

By Carl Schoettler
Baltimore Sun
Originally published April 28, 2005

Memories seem to hang like motes in the sunlight of Peter Kohn's bright and airy new apartment at One East University Parkway.

Pictures of his mother, Hylda Gutman Kohn, are everywhere. Kohn emphasizes the "Y" when he spells her name.

"I'm very attached to her memory," he says. "She sacrificed her life nearly to my brother and I. We needed so much help."

Both boys were considered what would now be called "developmentally challenged." Kohn describes long struggles through a plethora of boarding schools. He says he left many "not successful." He was an ungainly youth who couldn't swing a bat well or even run very well when he tried track.

Kohn is 73 now and the subject of a new documentary film, Keeper of the Kohn, which plays tonight at The Senator Theatre at 7:30. Directed by David Gaynes,  the cinema-verite film documents Kohn's last official season with the lacrosse team at Middlebury College in Vermont. The film has won the jury award for best documentary at the 2005 Vail (Colo.) Film Festival and the audience choice award for best documentary at this year's Palm Beach International Film Festival.

Kohn's life began sorting itself out nearly 25 years ago on the athletic field at Middlebury when he started passing out towels and water as field manager for the school's lacrosse team.

"It was just before my 50th birthday when I went to Middlebury," Kohn says. "I suddenly discovered that I wasn't fighting the world anymore," he says. "I realized I had found my place. We all hope to be where we're comfortable, people care about us, love us."

He was at last a part of a team.

The title refers to the team member who kept an eye on Kohn, gave him rides, generally looked after him.

When shooting for the documentary began, Kohn had been the lacrosse team manager for years and was much beloved at Middlebury.

The film shows him in his standard pre-game pep talk, which ends in the traditional chant:

"What time is it, Pete?"

"Time to beat Williams!"

Or Nazareth, or Dickinson, or Salisbury, or any of the other Division III teams they play.

In his farewell before his last game with Middlebury, he sends the team out to play with what might be his motto: "Let your character and dedication stand out brilliantly." Then tears well up and he says, "I'm so proud of you guys. I'm so proud to be part of this  team."

Kohn, now officially retired, became known throughout the lacrosse world for his unquenchable team spirit. Last year, his devotion to the game was recognized when he became one of the few people who never played the game to be inducted into the  Lacrosse Hall of Fame at the Johns Hopkins University.

"Part of the film is not to ask the question what's wrong with Peter," says Gaynes, the 27-year-old director of Keeper of the Kohn, "but to ask the question of what's right with Peter."

Kohn has grave blue eyes. And he looks more youthful in person than he does in the film as he reflects on his life. He's the grandson of one of the founders of Hochschild Kohn, the old line department store long gone from the northwest corner of Howard and  Lexington streets. The family sold its interest in the store in 1966. After his troubled educational journey through a plethora of schools, he finally finished at Park School, where he  first started. He graduated in 1954.

His mother never gave up on him or his brother, Benno, he says. "Only because of her dedication [did we have] a chance to become useful, valuable people to ourselves and the world," he says. "Though it took many, many years."

In the photographs and an oil portrait from a half-century ago, Hylda Kohn is the beautiful, stylish woman who occasionally acted at the old Vagabond and Hilltop theater companies. Kohn remembers her especially in Dark of the Moon, a folksy drama of  1920s Appalachia. "That might have been her favorite," he says.

Department-store style portraits of him and Benno, by a painter named Albert Schwartz, flank a cabinet at one end of his living room. He's a sweet-looking boy holding a toy train. He still loves trains and train travel. He's on a train in the opening of Keeper of the Kohn.

Gaynes was introduced to Kohn by Jim Grube, the coach who brought Kohn to Middlebury. Gaynes, a former TV news reporter, does different things in "nonfiction visual media" to put food on the table and pay the rent, including some journalism and corporate-video stuff. The documentary began as a part-time project.

"I was producing a video for Jim's company," he says from his Manhattan apartment during a phone interview. Grube is founder of the Teamwork Co., an Internet fitness and wellness program.

He left coaching lacrosse when his wife, Jane M. O'Brien, became president of Hollins College. She's president of St. Mary's College of Maryland. He suggested Kohn's story might make a documentary. Some Middlebury alumni sought him out to shoot footage of Kohn as field manager for their alumni reunion team, which plays every summer in  Colorado. When the time came to film Kohn with the current team, he was nowhere to be found.

Gaynes tracked Kohn to St. Augustine, Fla., where he was caring for Bettie Crilly, a long-time friend stricken with cancer. His documentary opened up.

"Then I thought this story was much, much bigger than just a sports piece, and I need to follow it over a period of time," Gaynes says. "She was OK with me documenting their relationship. I thought the story could really, really speak to some of the ideas I wanted to communicate in my work. The ideas of how we cope with changes in life and how real people wrestle with real issues."

Although the film has lots of lacrosse game and locker room sequences, Gaynes also probes the deep, bonding relationships Kohn forges with Crilly and Jerry Schmidt, a Hall of Fame lacrosse player at Hopkins. Schmidt shepherds Kohn's nomination to the Hall of Fame.

Kohn met Crilly in Cape May, N.J., where his family summered and he later went to live. He was washing dishes when Crilly, a tall, commanding woman, took him under her wing.

"What happens in the film," Gaynes says, "and what happened in real life as well is that Peter really ends up taking care of her."           
Kohn met Schmidt at Park School and renewed their friendship at Cape May in 1958.

"He was such a faithful friend," he says. "He did everything for me. He put me forward every way he could."

Schmidt, who won acclaim as a player and a coach, was the only lacrosse player to ever appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in April 1962. He died a few months before Kohn was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

"His effort in the end got me in," Kohn says. "I don't make it a big issue. But it is a very nice thing. ... I try to be modest about it. I don't ever want to be big-headed. I just want to be myself. And that's the way it should be."