Betty Cotter, a former editor of the Independent and a veteran reporter who has covered the Southern Rhode Island area for nearly four decades, was inducted into the Rhode Island Journalism Hall of Fame Friday evening at the Quonset ‘O’ Club in North Kingstown. Paul J. Spetrini

Betty Cotter, a former editor of the Independent and a veteran reporter who has covered the Southern Rhode Island area for nearly four decades, was inducted into the Rhode Island Journalism Hall of Fame Friday evening at the Quonset ‘O’ Club in North Kingstown. Paul J. Spetrini

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Betty Cotter is a journalist, editor, novelist and teacher. More importantly, she’s a storyteller who for nearly 40 years has given voice to the many facets of South County life.

As a journalist, she has covered events, people and controversies that might have escaped notice. As a novelist, she has blended her knowledge of the area with fiction to entertain readers.

While her enthusiasm for the craft of storytelling and writing has earned her a following, it also recently brought her the honor of being named to the Rhode Island Journalism Hall of Fame.

The award was conferred on Sept. 17 at the Rhode Island Press Association’s annual awards dinner at the Quonset “O” Club in North Kingstown. The Sun captured four first-place awards (arts and entertainment writer Nancy Burns-Fusaro in the Arts Review/Criticism category, and Harold Hanka in the General News Photo, Spot News Photo and Weather Photo categories). Burns-Fusaro also captured an honorable mention in the Arts & Entertainment Story category, while Hanka won third place in Feature Photo and second place in the Personality/Portrait Photo category.

“She has a bigger dimension than most reporters,” said Rudi Hempe, who in 1977 hired Cotter as a high school student to write a student-perspective column for the Chariho Times, which 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, has been busy. She was named executive editor of her college newspaper, and was a writer, editor and reporter at weekly and daily newspapers before helping to start The Independent in 1997.

She also created and designed a local magazine, is a memoirist in various literary publications, is a documentary author and TV script writer on local history and is a photo history collector and publisher. She’s also a novelist whose titles include “Roberta’s Woods” (2008) and “The Winters” (2012), both of which are rooted in South County.

Cotter also started a writers group years ago that is still active today. She has received various awards, including a grant and fellowship from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and first place in the novel excerpt category in the Seven Hills Literary Contest, and was the winner of Critical Read literary magazine’s Creative Block Contest.

She’s also extended her passion for writing to the classroom, where she teaches writing at the University of Rhode Island, Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn., the Neighborhood Guild in Peace Dale and at the North Kingstown Arts Council.

Among her community contributions is “Authors on Main,” once known as the “Authors Circle,” an occasional lecture series about and for writers and readers.

Newspapers are a family affair for Cotter. 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, followed in the family trade for about six years.

‘A witness’

Uncovering truths, however ugly or poignant, is what drives Cotter to so indefatigably promote writing and storytelling.

“I saw myself as a witness. I saw myself in a vanishing way of life,” Cotter said in an interview with The Independent last week after her award.

Her childhood wasn’t easy, she said, but it set up her voyage of discovery, especially about things people wanted to hide. That mission was personal for her after her oldest sister died in a car crash in 1967 in Shannock. Her parents — her father owned a sawmill and her mother was a teacher and published poet — faced their horrific loss with silence.

“I grew up in a house of secrets. After my sister died, no one talked,” she said. “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 the box 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 undertook a personal investigation into the crash, obtaining police records and information about the car and discovered something that no one had ever mentioned.

The evidence in the records pointed to the car — a problem-plagued Chevrolet Corvair, which was 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.”

Cotter’s curiosity about the “real” story — the questions that unravel the answers — of her childhood propelled her to pursue a career as a journalist to help others follow the same path.

“I’m still telling the stories of my grandmother and my father,” who were both raconteurs, she said.

‘The only place I felt comfortable’

Cotter’s love for books — she always preferred the library over the sports field — influenced her to be a writer with a capital “W” to emphasize status and importance, she said.

In a newspaper essay a year ago, she captured that moment in her childhood that helped to form the writer, journalist, teacher and mentor she is 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. 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 about books, 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 concludes the piece.

Natural evolution

Cotter’s curiosity for writing and reporting took her first to journalism.

Hempe said she never shied away from tough subjects, 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 at the RIPA Hall of Fame induction dinner.

“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.

Cotter wrote the “Chariho Chatter” column about her high school for the Chariho Times, a paper serving Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton.

Liz Boardman, who worked with Cotter later when she was editor of The Independent, recalled other stories, including the 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,” Boardman said. Cotter had her and another reporter “work every possible angle — the human, the history, the process,” she said.

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.

Setting a high bar

For those who worked with Cotter, it was more than a job, they said. It was an experience in passion and commitment.

“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 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 flesh out their stories. She taught us how to write a strong lead 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, said, “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 disciples.

Michael Grossman helps to lead an informal writers group Cotter started years ago. He owns Ebook Bakery, a self-publishing company 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 said.

‘It was like a family’

Cotter admitted that being a teacher, mentor and friend also can create a bond among storytellers.

“I really liked the connectedness of being an editor,” said Cotter, who added that harsh criticism is not her style.

“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 and a smile curled across her face.

“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.

She paused, considering a question about the interconnection of the importance of journalism, passion and people.

“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,” Cotter said. “It was really like a family. You’re really dependent on them. You also want to be there for them. These people were always more than my co-workers.”

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