Larry Birns was smart, shrewd, crafty, charming and almost impossible to shake from his opinions. He had broad experience in Latin America and knew how to use his many connections, whether it was a former member of a government, an academic, or an officer in an international organization. Larry constantly pursued information from many sources and brought out issues in the region that were overlooked or understudied. His concern was for those without a voice or power and his criticisms were directed against those who wielded power callously.
COHA ran on a shoe-string budget and depended entirely on volunteers, whether interns who came from all over the world to work in Washington doing research and writing articles or senior research fellows who would guide interns and edit their drafts as well as provide articles based on their own research. It was not easy to keep interns on track or get busy fellows to write, so Larry used his wiles to push, cajole, encourage, and direct everyone to produce. He always had ideas for topics of research and constantly sought ways to maximize output.
Larry could be charming and engaging. He had a quick wit and was willing to praise those he thought deserved recognition. He was welcoming and COHA was open to visits by scholars, reporters, students, and hangers-on. He could spin yarns about his experiences in Latin America, sometimes with non-sequiturs that left visitors puzzled, unsure whether this man was brilliant or just peculiar.
Larry Birns built COHA, directed COHA, molded people and ideas through COHA, and created an organization that filled a need in publishing information about Latin America. He was a unique individual, acerbic at times, but always determined to pursue the truth. Those who worked with Larry will not soon forget him or their experience with COHA. He was a man who did all he could to provide a voice and a vision for change.
James A. Baer is a retired professor of history and a former Senior Research Fellow and chair of the Board of Trustees at COHA.