Remembering My Dad, Jay Cohen
Growing up, my dad, Jay Cohen, the founder of Rush Index Tabs, was something of a hero to me. While other dads were at work, he did puzzles with me, played chess with me, and had baseball catches with me. In the 1970s this was unheard of — he basically invented the home office because he wanted to help raise his children, along with my mom.
My dad had a huge heart and a twisted sense of humor. In the 1970s, he won an award for being the largest employer of ex-convicts in New York (“I hire criminals and wonder why they steal from me,” he liked to say). He helped our employees pay for weddings and funerals; he gave them his cars. Every Father’s Day he’d receive a card in the mail from an ex-employee.
Words I associate with my dad: Generous, funny, brilliant, disorganized, loyal, principled, mathematical, mechanical, analytical, intense, confident, bold, colorful, emotional, affectionate, articulate, blunt, caring, and vengeful. When someone started stealing people’s lunch at Rush, dad planted a lunch bag in the front of the fridge. Inside the bag was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a whole lot of laxatives. That afternoon, an employee left work early due to an upset stomach (“that must’ve been some ride home,” dad told me).
Before Rush Index Tabs, there was Rush Manuals. Located on West 29th Street in Manhattan, Rush Manuals, also founded by my dad, grew to more than 100 employees, but a change of laws rendered bankruptcy manuals unnecessary, putting an end to Rush Manuals. When Dad hired a bankruptcy attorney, the attorney told him to buy as much paper and materials as he could, and then file chapter 7. My dad fired the attorney. Soon after, in 1987, he started Rush Index Tabs. It would take him the better part of a decade, but he would repay every penny that Rush Manuals had owed.
Dad would be the first to tell you he wasn’t perfect. He had an explosive temper, and he had zero patience for bullying. Once on a subway in Manhattan, a big, drunken man hovered over a lady and her young son, saying inappropriate things to her. My dad, a lean 5-foot-9, approached the man, squeezed his bicep, walked him to the nearest set of doors and told him through gritted teeth, “You’re getting off at the next stop.” The man got off at the next stop.
When I graduated from college in 1993, I started selling index tabs for Rush. I was rejected for six straight months — I was close to quitting — but someone finally took pity on me and placed an order. I spent the next 20 years helping Rush grow.
One year, probably in the late 1990s, Dad exhibited at a trade show for stationers. Traffic at Rush’s booth was light. The busiest exhibitors, my dad deduced, were busy not due to their product offerings, but rather, because of the scantily clad women behind the booths. My dad refused to play that game. Instead, the next year, he showed up dressed up as Superman. I mean fully as Superman — including the red spandex. The folks who managed the show weren’t pleased. “It was the best trade show we ever did,” he told me.
Dad hired my mom to do collections. “Phyllis,” he once said during dinner, “the idea is to collect the money … and keep the customer!” He eventually gave her the title of Director of Sales Prevention.
In 2011, my dad told me that we were going to move our factory. I’d been through one move already—I pleaded with him—not again! But we were located in the Meadowlands—essentially a swamp at sea level. Dad said the changing weather patterns were putting our company at risk. We moved in 2012. Six months later, Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey. Our prior factory was flooded, while we, perched at the very top of East Rutherford, remained dry.
The years that followed were a struggle. Our sales started to drop. In some ways we were operating like it was still 1987. I was in my 40s; I was a dad now, too. I felt ready to improve Rush, ready to lead us. When I asked my dad to hand over the reins, we had a huge blowout. I didn’t know at the time, but he had Alzheimer’s. His mind was being taken from him, now his company, too?
I basically started running the company without my dad’s permission. I had some luck: Our biggest competitor went out of business. Over the next three years, our sales doubled, and our plant became more efficient. It’s easy to improve something that someone else has created; it’s far harder to build something from scratch.
The real superheroes are our employees. Our 50,000-square-foot factory is chilly during the winter, hot during the summer, and loud year-round, but our team works through it all with intelligence, grit, and heart. When the pandemic hit, everyone kept showing up to work, literally risking their lives to keep our company afloat.
When my dad stopped asking me how Rush was doing, I knew we were losing him. Toward the end of his life, on an unusually lucid day, sitting on a couch, he laughed to himself. “What is it?” I asked. “I should’ve had you run it 20 years ago.”
Weeks before dad died, Glenn, a client of ours who dad adored—who we all adore—visited dad in an assisted living. Glenn had a clever idea: He brought a set of index tabs and handed them to my dad. But first Glenn took one tab and reversed it 180 degrees. Dad was unable to communicate — at that point, he normally just stared into space — but when Glenn handed him those tabs, Dad reversed the backwards tab and handed the perfect set of tabs back to Glenn.
If you need index tabs, or if you’d like to say a quick hello, Scott can be reached at Scott@RushIndex.com.