SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Betty Cotter is a journalist, editor, novelist and teacher. More importantly, she’s a storyteller who for nearly 40 years has given a voice to the many stories of life in South County.
As a journalist, she has covered and wrote about events, people and controversies that might have escaped notice. As a novelist, she could blend her knowledge of the area with fiction to entertain readers.
While her enthusiasm for the craft of storytelling and writing has earned her a fan club and following of admirers, it also recently brought her the honor of being named to the Rhode Island Journalism Hall of Fame.
“She has a bigger dimension than most reporters,” said Rudi Hempe recently and who in 1977 brought on Cotter as a high school student to write a student-perspective column for one of the weekly newspapers he managed.
Hempe said, “What’s different than with other journalists is that she has delved into a lot more.”
On that score, Hempe is right.
In the last four decades, Cotter, 61, became executive editor of her college newspaper, writer, editor and reporter at weekly and daily newspapers and helped in 1997 to start The Independent.
She also created and designed a local magazine, is a memoirist in various literary publications, documentary author and TV script writer on local history, photo history collector and publisher, and novelist whose titles included “Roberta’s Woods” (2008) and “The Winters” (2012), both fictional stories rooted in South County.
If that’s not enough, she also started a writer’s group years ago and that still survives today. She has received various awards, including a grant and fellowship from the R.I. State Council on the Arts, first place in the novel excerpt category in the Seven Hills Literary Contest and winner of the Creative Block Contest of Critical Read literary magazine.
She’s also extended her passion for writing to the classroom where she has been a writing instructor at the University of Rhode Island, Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, CT, the Neighborhood Guild in Peace Dale and the North Kingstown Arts Council.
Among her community contributions is a program called “Authors on Main” — once known as the “Authors Circle,” which is an occasional lecture series about and for writers and readers.
Just to cement the foundation in her love for the craft of journalism, newspapers have been a family affair for her. In 1987 she married Tim Cotter, a sports writer and later news writer and editor who is now executive editor of The Day in New London. Their son, Colby, also followed in the family trade for about six years.
So, what drives Betty J. Cotter to be seemingly indefatigable to promote the craft and art of storytelling and writing?
Uncovering truths - however ugly or poignant - might best sum it up.
Her View on Herself
“I saw myself as a witness. I saw myself in a vanishing way of life,” said Cotter in an interview with The Independent this week after her award, to the lives of people and a changing South County where she grew up on Charlestown.
Her childhood wasn’t exactly easy, but set up her voyage of discovery of life, especially about things people wanted to hide, she said.
It has included the personal quest and process of reconciliation of facts for Cotter, whose oldest sister died in a tragic car cash in 1967 in Shannock. Her parents - a father who owned a sawmill and worked with his hands and a mother who was a teacher and published poet — faced that horrific loss of a child.
“I grew up in a house of secrets. After my sister died, no one talked,” she explained. “I was always snooping because no one talked. One day, when no one was home, I pulled out a box my mother had kept about my sister’s death.”
In it were the details of a crash in which the driver was accused of drunk driving. However, the case against the driver, she said, was dismissed because evidence was lacking.”
Later in life, Cotter took up a very personal investigation into it, obtained police records, information about the car and discovered something that no one ever mentioned.
The evidence in the records all pointed to the car — a problem-plagued Chevrolet Corvair — prone to flip over, she said.
“Here I married two things - an event from my childhood and investigative reporting,” she said. “It turned out to be the car, not the driver,” she added.
Although it’s one event, curiosity about the “real” story — questions that undo the answers - about her life propelled her to pursue the same as a journalist and help others do it, too.
“I’m still telling the stories of my grandmother and my father,” whom she said were raconteurs morning, noon or night to friends and family alike.
In addition, a love for books influenced this quiet little girl who preferred the library over a sports field and wanted to be a writer with a capital “W” to emphasis conferred status and importance, she said.
In a newspaper essay, nearly a year ago, she captured that moment in her childhood that helped to form the writer, journalist, teacher and mentor she has become today.
“The face on the obituary page brought a flood of memories. Although her last name had changed, I instantly recognized my beloved school librarian, Roberta Sabella Mansfield,” she wrote.
“Mansfield, a Cranston resident, died of cancer on Sept. 22, and I never got a chance to tell her what a difference she made in my life,” she recalled.
“In the fall of 1971, I was an awkward, bookish, sometimes-bullied sixth-grader. The only place I felt comfortable was our elementary school’s library” and with a librarian who took her under her wing.
Mansfield introduced her to the vast treasury of a library and supported her curiosity to learn what books can offer, starting a journey that opened up a world of details, perspectives, faraway and close-by places and a fingertip on an alternate reality.
“Sometimes all a child really needs is to be seen for who he or she is. Roberta Sabella Mansfield did that for me, and I am grateful,” she concluded the piece.
The Stories She Helped Shape
In turn, the curiosity for writing and reporting took her first to journalism.
Hempe highlighted that part about her, even as a student journalist.
“Over the years, she has been a school correspondent, a very controversial one, I might add,” he said in his introduction of her when she received her recent recognition.
“Betty’s columns were anything but kind. Betty got in trouble with the principal and the superintendent a couple of times,” he added with a laugh.
She wrote the “Chariho Chatter” column about her high school for the paper serving Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinson. He said he told her that she was welcome at his paper as soon as she graduated from college.
Liz Boardman, who worked with her later when Cotter became The Independent’s editor, recalled other stories, including the local uproar over a local convicted child killer being released from jail early based on “good time” credit.
“Betty was determined we could tell it every bit as well or better than the big paper,” she said about the weekly’s coverage. Cotter had her and another reporter “work every possible angle—the human, the history, the process,” she explained.
Laura Kelly, another colleague, pointed to local election coverage by Cotter, whose undergraduate degree is in public affairs and journalism.
“She would spend many hours with staff creating a guide for voters that profiled each candidate and discussed important issues, both local and statewide. Residents would often tell me that they brought these guides with them into the voting booth,” Kelly said.
“Her editorial writing was top-notch often resulting in long debates with town managers or police chiefs when they disagreed with her position,” she added.
For those working with Cotter, it was more than a job, they said. It was an experience in passion and commitment.
Mentors See the Same
“I owe my career to her,” said Boardman, whose first news-gathering job came from Cotter.
“Betty has a strong knowledge of history of place, which lets her add context and connect dots, which makes for much richer reporting or fiction. That was invaluable to me as a news reporter, and something I embraced in my career because of her example,” she said.
Kelly has known Betty Cotter since 1994 when she was hired as a reporter at The Narragansett Times.
“An incredibly talented writer and editor, Betty guided me, and a multitude of reporters, through covering town budgets and meetings, police and courts and disasters like 1996’s North Cape oil spill in South Kingstown,” Kelly said.
“She always took the time to talk to reporters and flush out their stories. She taught us how to write a strong lede and how great quotes bring a story to life,” she added.
There also were some Cotter-isms that happened along the way, too.
“Anyone who worked with Betty would recall her excitedly yelling a high-pitched ‘OOH, OOH, OOH’ if she got a hot news tip. You knew it meant that you had a new assignment coming your way,” Kelly said.
Kristen Cyr, who would eventually work for Cotter, commented, “I heard about Betty before I met her” and that Cotter could be a tough editor.
“When I started working with her at The Independent in 1999, I saw that ‘tough’ meant she set a high bar for her reporters, then invested in them so they could meet it. Betty is an extraordinary coach and mentor,” Cyr said.
Commitment and interest — not experience or college degrees — would sometimes guide Cotter’s decision to hire someone, she added.
“Once when we were interviewing reporter candidates for our respective papers, she told me she looked for people who were bright, curious and willing to learn. If they lacked experience, she could teach them the rest,” she said.
And journalists aren’t the only ones hearing the gospel of writing from Cotter and becoming converts and disciples.
Michael Grossman helps to lead an informal writers group that Cotter helped to start years ago. He owns Ebook Bakery, a self-publishing company that Cotter has used to publish one of her books. The two share a keen interest in the publishing process.
“I hardly consider myself a groupie – but I make an exception when it comes to anything Betty Cotter writes. From ‘Roberta’s Woods’ to ‹The Winters,’ in my ever humble opinion Betty is Rhode Island’s finest writer,” he offered.
“Her prose is tight and condensed, yet smooth – often reaching the lyrical, and her characters are subtle and nuanced. I eagerly await Betty’s next novel so I can continue waving my flag as one of many in Betty’s fan base,” Grossman said.
Cotter’s influence on the group has intermingled with the sharing of the labor of writing, learning improvements and struggling with applying them while a friendship develops with her because of an easy style of teaching, said Enid Flaherty and Jane McCarthy.
“When Betty retired from her leadership post, most of us stayed on. It’s not just about discussing the writing, but about friendship. Betty set the tone,” said group member Camilla Lee, author of “Life Stories, from Reno to the Azores.”
Connections, Friends and Stories
“I really liked the connectedness of being an editor,” Cotter said, but admitting that being a teacher, mentor and friend also can create a bond among storytellers to each another.
It is, however, with kindness and support that she nurtures connections and builds skills in the quest of others who, like her, have dreams of becoming a writers.
Harsh criticism is not her style, she said. ”I have worked for people who belittled me. I don’t want to do that,” she said, adding, “I never want to be that person. I have learned as much from the bad editors as I have from the good ones.”
As if to prove her point, her eyes suddenly widened. A smile came across her face exuding a friendliness around her face draped in black straight hair falling over the sides of her dark-rimmed glasses.
“I would sometimes get excited when they tell me something big, something interesting and I’d give the ‘Betty Gasp,’” she said with a laugh.
A pause came when this topic of emotion, journalism, passion and people were at once all interconnected through their importance to her.
“I didn’t do anything by myself. Running a newspaper is a group project every week. That’s why I get so emotional about it,” said Cotter. “It was really like a family. You’re really dependent on them. You also want to be there for them,” she said.
“These people were always more than my co-workers,” she added.