A Man on a Mission
“When you push yourself beyond limits, you discover inner
reserves, which you never thought existed earlier.”
― Manoj Arora, Dream On
Throughout all my many years of abuse there have also been people who have crossed my path leaving their mark on my life in a way that facilitates growth. Dr. Paul D. Cotten was just one of those people. He also crossed paths with my father when he was in junior college. Ellisville State School was a residential facility for individuals with mental retardation. As you can imagine, I went with my dad to work when I was little, therefore, being around individuals with many different types of disabilities was the norm. As an adult I consider that exposure a blessing.
When I started my educational career at William Carey University as a non-traditional undergraduate, I told my dad the names of some of the professors. As I mentioned some of the names he began to tell me stories about his connection with Dr. Cotten and some of the funny things he would say. My experience with Dr. Cotten was one that I valued and learned from at every interaction. He was not an easy professor, by any means, but he knew how to get me to perform at my best. He pushed me sometimes to tears but I knew that what he was doing was out of love for his students.
I took him for several classes but my favorite and most challenging had to be Abnormal Psychology. Dr. Cotten was very instrumental in deinstitutionalizing and placing these individuals with disabilities into the community. The focus of our internship programs were with the elderly and mentally retarded populations. Yes I was able to do many hours in substance abuse programs but he would not let me make that my focus. I have stories I could tell about working with these populations and was truly blessed.
Anyone who crossed paths with Dr. Cotten was one where you either hated him or loved him as a professor. I truly believe that most people loved him because he always challenged you to be your best. Some of the best advice I was given as a student by him was, “Before you diagnose someone you first have to understand that they are an individual.” Dr. Cotten also saw clients for evaluations for court commitments. The stories that he would share would have you laughing but his points were always very clear. He told us in one of the Gerontology classes that “Most people retire from something rather than to something which shortens their lives due to complacency.” He had more irons in the fire in his 70s than most will have in a lifetime, thus, making sure he wasn’t complacent. He milked life of every minute of every day no matter how difficult sometimes.
In tears, I went to him one day in his office where he had placed a piano that he would often be playing southern gospel music. I announced my arrival and I looked at him and said, “Dr. Cotten I respect you so much why are you pushing me so hard if you know what I’m going through at home?” I was still married to my ex-husband, at the time, and the abuse I suffered at his hands was immense. Dr. Cotten then told me, “Because I know that you’re capable of more than what he’s telling you.” I couldn’t really understand everything in the moment but I took that interaction back with me and I have never forgotten how much that motivated me to finish my degree through the blood, sweat and tears. I just couldn’t understand why he cared but he did.
He was always so funny but very business-like at times. I asked him while walking to another class why he was there on his day off. He simply told me, “I’m here to help stomp out stupidity.” I could do nothing but laugh because that’s exactly what he was doing. He also required us to be counselors at Camp Kaleidoscope, which is a camp for children with autism and other spectrum disorders. I was terrified but I will always give him credit for making us well rounded as students.
When I heard of his passing in 2017, at the age of 80, I teared up at the death of a man who made such a big impact on my life both personally and professionally. But most of all, he was a man of integrity and always wanted the best for his students no matter what branch of psychology they chose. He was also over the music therapy program and touch lives everywhere he went. He touched my life at a time that was tumultuous and finding a reason to live was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Thank you Dr. Paul D. Cotten for blessing my life and for seeing more than just a traumatized individual that stood before you. You have inspired me to continue in the world by helping to “stomp out stupidity.”