In Memory of John Cotter

John Cotter died far too young on November 20, 2008 at the age of 55. He loved his hometown, Buffalo, New York, where he attended Canisius High School and Canisius College. He also loved Notre Dame. More than anything he loved his family, including his parents, his sisters Eileen and Mary Jane, his wife Karen and his children Cara, John and Maura.

John was a baseball player, a golfer, a rower, a runner, a boxer and a coach. He was a long time member and past president of West Side Rowing Club in Buffalo. He played a pivotal role in building West Side’s Fontana Boat House from a Frank Lloyd Wright design that had been mothballed for over a century. He was a lawyer for thirty years in Buffalo. As much prose as follows, much more no doubt could be written about John in connection with each of the preceding facets of his life. But here I would like to tell you about John Cotter’s love of Irish song, and his love of life.

On October 21, 1975, when Carleton Fisk launched his game-winning home run in game six of one of the greatest World Series ever played, John Cotter and I were both on our feet instantly. While Fisk was still waving the ball fair, we both joined in, staring at a 19-inch TV that hung in the upper corner of the Notre Dame Law School lounge and waving to our right. When Fisk stopped waving and started hopping, John and I started jumping up and down and hugging each other. It was like he was my lifelong best friend. I had only known him one month.

Just over 33 years later, on November 21, 2008, I was taking the Amtrak “Empire Builder” from Saint Paul to Chicago to attend a Notre Dame Football game. It was the first football get-together of our classmates in 33 years that John could not attend. I had spoken to him the week before and laughingly said I would give him an excused absence, but only because he would be attending his parents’ 60th wedding anniversary celebration. An hour out of Saint Paul, when John’s wife Karen left me a voice message to call her, I knew something was wrong. I immediately returned her call to find out that John was gone. He had gone out for a run the night before and suffered a heart attack. I cried most of the way to Chicago. None of us attended the game. We had to make plans for a trip to Buffalo.

I met John Cotter a few weeks into our first year at Notre Dame Law School in September, 1975. He tapped me on the shoulder from behind at the conclusion of an 8:00 a.m. class and stuck out his hand, saying “John Cotter from Buffalo.” None of our crew from Notre Dame ever heard him introduce himself any other way. Cotter asked me to join him and some of the boys for a beer that evening. Most of us would simply call him “Cotter.” I always called him “John,” and use both here.

Somewhere between our second and sixth beer that night, Cotter and I discovered that we were both second-generation Irishmen, both of our paternal grandfathers were fire captains, we were American League baseball fans, we loved the Clancy Brothers and revered Jack Kennedy. We were both 22 years old and both in our 17th year of Catholic education. We soon discovered that we shared a common view as to how to relieve the academic stress of law school. Our coping method was not original - beer and song – the centuries-old standard for stress relief with university students.

When I traveled back and forth from Minnesota to Boston College, and later from Minnesota to Notre Dame, I always took one suitcase, my guitar, a stereo in half a dozen boxes, and an antique steamer trunk full of vinyl. I had more than 500 albums, the majority of which were old blues, jazz, bluegrass and folk records. I had fewer than fifty rock and roll records, about the same number of classical records and not more than a dozen well-played Irish records. As I recall, they were all The Clancy Brothers and The Chieftains. I could not sing any one Irish song through from beginning to end by heart. John Cotter would change all that.

The Notre Dame Law School library had a series of small conference rooms where study groups could convene. The outside wall of the conference rooms were glass so that the students in the library could see, but not hear, the students in the conference room. One evening, not long after the Fisk home run, I was walking around the library wondering when we would adjourn for a beer. I noticed Cotter and some of our friends in a conference room. Even if you did not know them, it would have been apparent that this was no study group. I went in; Cotter was in the middle of an Irish history lecture.

With a double major in English and History, John Cotter knew his Irish Literature and Irish history. A born storyteller, he had the group enthralled with the story of the 1798 Wexford Rebellion and the subsequent trial and execution of Robert Emmet in 1803. This early 19th-century trial was all the connection to our academic responsibilities that Cotter required. To him, this was an AP criminal law study group. He delivered a theatrical rendition of Emmet’s speech from the dock, abridged to about five minutes. One of the greatest orations in world history, given by a young Irishman to a trio of trespassing English jurists who were impatient to impose the penalty of death, Emmet repeatedly attacked the jurisdiction of the court. Emmet concludes with the immortal words “…when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.” With those words Cotter bowed his head dramatically and the conference room erupted into cheers.

Seizing the moment, John segued into the cruel English laws making it treasonous for the Irish to glorify their executed, “traitorous” countrymen through song or poetry. The Irish, incorrigible though they are, used allegory to sing praise to their heroes and avoid the noose. One such use of allegory was the song “Nell Flaherty’s Drake.” On its face it is a song sung by an old widow about the loss of her prize Drake to criminals; she curses the criminals, and concludes comforted by the knowledge that at least she is in possession of the duck’s descendants. Cotter explained that thesong was really an allegorical homage to the great Irish martyr, Robert Emmet. Nell was Ireland, the Drake was Emmet, the cursed criminal was the Crown, and the Duck’s descendants were the Irish patriots who succeeded Emmet.

As Cotter delivered his rendition (cut 9 of this CD is mine), the effect was magical. John had a
voice, even as a young man, remarkably similar to the late great Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners - a baritone that sounded as though it had been marinated in Irish whiskey and cigar smoke. His pitch was dead on, his delivery was theatrical, and the twinkle in his eye emphasized the key points. He paused at the beginning of the third verse and in a stage whisper said “Here come the curses boys.” After rattling off those seemingly interminable curses, he began the next verse with another stage whisper, this time barely audible: “More curses boys.” As he ended the song--“…so ends the whole song of Nell Flaherty’s Drake”--the entire group of about seven in the conference room erupted into tumultuous cheers. Outside in the library, a large group had assembled, peering at us through the glass. We were soon asked to leave. Cotter did not have to buy a round that evening, although I am almost certain that he did.

That performance of “Nell Flaherty’s Drake” inspired me to commit to memory as many
Irish songs as I could. Cotter seemed to know scores. A few months later, by Saint Paddy’s Day, we could sing five or six together. We taught the rest of the fellas the chorus to the songs. The “Diddley Owdle Dowdle Chorus” contained at least one member who was tone deaf; still they all possessed unparalleled enthusiasm. Two of the earliest songs that would remain our mainstays for decades were “Come Out You Black and Tans” by the Wolfe Tones and “Rising of the Moon” by The Clancy Brothers. My apologies to the “Diddley Owdle Dowdle Chorus” for not including those two songs here.

Over the next three years, and the next thirty after that, John and I sang almost as often as
we would have a beer. Sometimes, as with the incident in the library, we even sang sober. We routinely ran four miles around the lakes near the Notre Dame Grotto after morning classes and before lunch. We would exchange songs along the route, although the geese that patrolled those lakes did not appreciate our singing. Some evenings we would sing until the beer ran out. Cotter would frequently recite some Irish literature (e.g. Yeats’s “Easter 1916” in juxtaposition to “The Foggy Dew” – cut 11) to highlight the historical context of the song.

Cotter and I spent our second year of law school overseas at the Notre Dame London Law
Centre. “The troubles” were a front burner issue in London in 1976. Within a few weeks of our arrival John lead a group of five of us to the Hammersmith Bridge where we all joined Auriol Rowing Club. Three of the five of us had never been in a rowing boat before. We all joined crews, trained, raced and, in the process, formed close friendships with Londoners at Auriol. John and I laid off our most militant Irish tunes in their presence. To compensate we tried to visit every Irish pub in London.

The singing of Irish songs became such an embedded part of our social scene that in the first few years after graduation we regularly got together for reunions around Saint Paddy’s Day, just so we could sing. Later, when we were both married with small children, we would call each other every year on March 17th and sing a song into each other’s voice mail. “McAlpine’s Fusiliers” by Ronnie Drew was Cotter’s calling card in recent years; mine was “Kelly the Boy from Killane.”

John Cotter taught me a lot about life. He may be the only man I ever met who could genuinely care less for material things--even electronic and mechanical things held little interest for him. Food, drink, literature, music, theatre, sport, conversation, family and a beautiful day were the things he valued. On one of our runs around the lakes during our first year at Notre Dame, he caught my eye, looked around and said “Kev, we’re in Oz.” There was genuine awe in his voice, as though he could not fathom the beauty of the place or our great fortune to simply be present there. We ran every Saturday and Sunday morning of every football weekend that we got together over the next thirty years. He would always thankfully comment on the day that God had provided. If it was a bitter gray day threatening rain, he would find something to say about the beauty of nature. If the wind howled into our faces, with a 20 below wind chill, he would laugh uproariously, scream back at the wind, and regale everyone for the rest of the day with stories of our “Lear-like” run. He could not get enough of life.

John loved everything about Notre Dame, not just Notre Dame Football. But still, Joe Montana came off the bench to become the starting quarterback in the fall of 1975, our first year. The Montana-led Irish won the National Championship in our second year. A walk-on named Rudy played his historic minutes during our third year. On these occasions, and others, John and I broke into song to celebrate.

Cotter and I were very connected, considering we only saw each other every couple of years for a weekend. We each served as an usher in the other’s wedding in 1981 and 1982. Throughout the 80s and early 90s we sent each other music – cassette tapes made of selected cuts from our vinyl. I sent him tapes of old blues, folk and jazz recordings – Big Maceo, Woody Guthrie, Fats Waller and Billie Holliday. He sent me Irish songs. He would painstakingly write out in his distinctive cursive hand the name and artist for each song. He would always give each tape a title - almost always “Tunes for Kev”; there were many volumes with that same name. One was titled “Rebel Tunes for Kevmo.” He called me that long before there was a recording artist with a similar moniker.

One of the songs on “Rebel Tunes for Kevmo” was “The Boys of the Old Brigade” by the Wolfe Tones. John and I never included it in our repertoire, but it stuck in my head for more than twenty-five years, until Karen called me on the train. As soon as I hung up on Karen, I started searching my iPod for Cotter Tunes but could not find “The Boys of the Old Brigade” for several months. I found many that were John’s signature songs. A few days later, when we got together at the Cotter home after John’s wake, I sang several of them on his guitar for Karen, the Cotter kids and the Notre Dame boys. That was very hard.

Within a few weeks after John’s funeral, I started thinking about this project. About once a year for the past three decades I have been lucky enough to play guitar with my closest friend from high school, Pat Donohue. The experience must be very similar to what a duffer might feel after playing a round of golf with Jack Nicklaus. I would frequently call Cotter in Buffalo to tell him about the Irish songs Pat and I had played. John always replied with “you guys should make a CD of rebel tunes”. I always laughed.

In March 2009, a few weeks before the first recording session for this CD, I found a recording of “The Boys of the Old Brigade” by Derek Warfield. It was not the identical version that John had sent me almost thirty years earlier, but very close. As I practiced it and recorded it I felt John’s presence. I could see in “memories’ view a far off distant day” when John and I were in our early twenties, laughing, singing, and howling into the wind.

John Cotter and Pat Donohue never met but they had each heard of the other for decades. Cotter had most of Pat’s CDs. Even before Pat had released any CDs, John was familiar with Pat’s music because I had several homemade cassette recordings of Pat that I played during law school. On one of those tapes Pat covers Billie Holliday’s “You’re a Lucky Guy.” Cotter would play that song over and over again, knowing at age 23 how brilliant and poetic the lyric was. The song concludes:

You’re a lucky guy,
So why not treasure,
Your highest pleasure,
And live right up till you die?
No one can deny,
Boy, you’re a lucky guy.

Most of our conversations over the past three decades were about the joys of fatherhood. John frequently alluded to the lyrics of what he called “Donohue’s song”: “We’re lucky guys, Kev.” It was his way of saying that we were blessed, which of course we were.

Each of John’s many friends from Notre Dame, and I am sure each of his hundreds of friends from Buffalo, could tell more than a few “Cotter stories.” He was one of those characters who seemed larger than life. Most “Cotter stories” have nothing to do with singing Irish songs. We frequently commented on how he was a 19th-century guy -- an old fashioned gentleman, a man’s man, the guy you would want to stand shoulder to shoulder with. Whether you were walking into a bar or going to Mass, life was always an adventure with John Cotter.

In the summer of 2009, halfway through the recording phase of this project, I remember wishing that Cotter could have heard these songs, the versions of them that Pat and I were recording. I now believe that he has. I made the CD so that his kids would know just how much John meant to me and our Notre Dame friends. I also wanted John’s hundreds of friends from Buffalo, most of whom I have never met, to hear about this facet of John’s life. I have only been to Buffalo twice, once for John’s wedding and again for his funeral. I imagine John’s Buffalo friends sometimes heard him break out in one of these songs on the 18th fairway, in the shower of the rowing club, or in the Courthouse parking lot and thought he was a little eccentric. Now they can understand him a little better. For Cotter, life was a song.

- Kevin Short, Mahtomedi, Minnesota, January 2010

  • Cotter's Tunes
  • Cotter's Tunes
  • Cotter's Tunes
  • Cotter's Tunes
  • Cotter's Tunes
  • Cotter's Tunes