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Originally published Tuesday, August 31, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Sandra Cohen, meticulous and passionate attorney

Sandra Cohen, former head of the municipal-law section of the Seattle city attorney's office, has died at 59.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sandra Cohen could stand on a clump of grass, look down and immediately spot a four-leaf clover.

"She had this uncanny ability to point out four-leaf clovers," said Ms. Cohen's husband, Richard Struve. "She has magical qualities. I have dried clovers all over the house."

Ms. Cohen used that same attention to detail as head of the municipal-law section of the Seattle City Attorney's Office and was involved in such major issues as those surrounding the Pine Street Garage, Benaroya Hall, the sidewalk-sitting law and the Seattle Art Museum's move into the Washington Mutual Tower, which involved city money.

Ms. Cohen, 59, died Thursday (Aug. 25) in her Ravenna home. She died of mesothelioma, a cancer related to asbestos exposure.

Attorney Hugh Spitzer worked with Ms. Cohen in the Seattle Art Museum case and remembers, in 2005, Ms. Cohen questioned whether Washington Mutual would stay in business, much to the disgust of other attorneys negotiating the lease.

They insisted Washington Mutual, a company with a long history in Seattle, would be solvent, "but Sandy was adamant that we get the same kind of protections from the art museum and Washington Mutual as any other private party," said Spitzer. "She said we have a duty to dot every 'i' and make sure we're protected. And she was right. Her meticulousness and her stubbornness resulted in some very important protections for the taxpayers."

Born in Scarsdale, N.Y., Ms. Cohen attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and graduated from Harvard Law School. She moved to Seattle to work for a private law firm and later worked for the prosecutors' offices of King and Snohomish counties before joining the city's law department, where she worked for 14 years.

Her boss, former City Attorney Mark Sidran, said she was a "lawyer's lawyer." She took the city's sidewalk-sitting ordinance all the way up to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and she not only won the case, but the law has been copied by dozens of other U.S. cities.

She worked as the legal adviser to the city's Ethics and Elections Commission, which City Councilman Tim Burgess once chaired.

"She was an amazing woman," Burgess said. "We had tough cases involving elected officials, and she was strong, very, very courageous and her humility is what always came through."

Burgess said Ms. Cohen "cherished both the law and its application and it showed in her work."

Anne Levinson, who was legal counsel to former Mayor Norm Rice, said Ms. Cohen was intellectually rigorous and was key in many city projects, such as the Pine Street Garage and the Families and Education Levy.

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"She really did represent the best of public service," said Levinson. "She had a librarian quality, an encyclopedic knowledge of city law."

Her sister Diane Follensbee, who lives in Oregon, said Ms. Cohen was always very smart, was valedictorian in her high-school class and was very athletic.

"She gave my parents a run for their money," Follensbee said. "Sandy was so good at organizing we called her the camp director."

Every time Follensbee would visit Seattle with her children, Ms. Cohen would leave a list on the refrigerator of places they should see, along with ferry schedules. When she was close to death she left a list for her husband, of places he should go after her death.

Struve said his wife loved the Northwest and that together they knew every small town and roadside cafe. They would hike and fly fish, rock scramble, scuba dive and bird watch. Ms. Cohen liked to cross-country ski and in her 50s taught herself to snowboard.

She liked to garden and had a little vegetable patch in the front yard where neighbors were invited to pick peas and tomatoes.

The couple loved to travel, and that included a three-year journey to 21 countries. She also was famous in her neighborhood as the scary witch at Halloween.

Struve wrote in an e-mail to friends, "Mesothelioma may have killed her, but she never allowed it to take her life away."

The e-mail said she led "many new adventures during her battle with cancer, even during her last days."

Friend Sandra Driscoll, who met Ms. Cohen when they were both municipal attorneys, said she had a kidney transplant 18 years ago and every year on the date of the transplant Ms. Cohen would send her a "birthday" card.

The two became best friends. "She was an incredibly loyal friend," Driscoll said. "She had a way of sucking the marrow out of life, she got everything she could get out of life. She could see a four-leaf clover in a patch of grass, seeing things everybody else couldn't."

In addition to her husband and sister, Ms. Cohen is survived by another sister, Jill Holl, of Homer, N.Y., and her parents, Seymour and Claire Cohen, of Lake Oswego, Ore.

A memorial is planned for next spring. Struve said he'll choose a time when lilacs are blooming because those were her favorite flowers.

In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to these five charities:

Planned Parenthood of Great Northwest, 2001 E. Madison St., Seattle, WA 98122; Washington Trails Association, 2019 Third Ave., Suite 100, Seattle, WA 98121; Friends of the Columbia Gorge, 522 S.W. Fifth Ave., Suite 720, Portland, OR 97204; the Sandra Lynn Cohen Academic Scholarship Memorial Fund, 565 S.W. 130th Ave., Beaverton, OR 97005; or the Seattle Audubon Society, 8050 35th Ave. N.E., Seattle, WA 98115.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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