Story Arts Remembers Michael Cotter


Michael Cotter died on July 31 at his home in Austin, Minnesota. He was 86.  Michael was a third-generation Minnesotan farmer who wrote and told stories from his own life, and who helped others discover the healing power of storytelling.

Story Arts board member Loren Niemi shared these thoughts on Michael's passing :

Today is Michael Cotter's funeral. I've known him the entire length of his performing career from his first story in a Goia Tinmpanelli workshop at the 1979 Mythos conference to his first time going to the Mineral Point Festival before it was the Northlands Conference. I drove with him for his first time at the Jonesborough Festival and heard him the first time he told at that festival soon after. 

There is a story about the second time I drove to Jonesborough with Michael with Carol McCormick and Maren Hinderlie, as well. It was the year of the "Bessie Hyde" story - a story in which a new bride has a bad feeling about a journey and a husband who will not listen resulting in their death. I don't remember who told it. What I do remember is that on the way back from the Festival we got into a conversation about the story and its "feminist" interpretations. Maren was at the wheel. Michael was sitting in the back seat, his eyes getting steadily bigger as a silent Maren drove faster - 70, 75, 80 miles an hour - as each comment was made, until finally Michael said as politely as a panicked man could, "Maren, say something or stop the car..."

At every turn his style remained an easy almost offhanded telling of stories where the introduction was often longer than the story but always lead directly to the tale. The content was his life and farming as it was and as it changed over the years. The story of the Killdeer, the trading of horses, or the wanting to be a hero with a front end loader.

He did Two Chairs Telling four times (twice at the jungle Theater, once at Open Eye, once at Bryant Lake Bowl) including a pairing with Colleen Kruse when she made her first appearance. I remeber that he was so in awe of her, so flirtatious and yet so protective all at the same time. Always charming, always willing to laugh at himself, he enjoyed telling and the audience he was telling to.

The last time he did Two Chairs Telling we were talking before the show and he offhandedly began a anecdote about a mistake he made harvesting corn while driving in a computer controlled cab. Ed Jones, who would be in the other chair said, you should tell that when we're on stage. And sure enough, Michael did tell the story again, polishing and tweaking it as he went to make it both funnier and more human in the telling.

His passing at 86 is a real loss. In an era of genuflection at the altar of the Slam, we don't make storytellers like Michael Cotter anymore.

Michael's storytelling accomplishments are highlighted in his obituary in the Austin Daily Herald:

In the 1850s, his pipe-smoking great-grandmother brought her family to America from Ireland’s potato famine and, in 1875, his grandfather broke the Southern Minnesota prairie sod with a team of oxen.  Michael began sharing this legacy when, at 50 years of age, he was introduced to storytelling. His stories of the farm, his strict Irish Catholic upbringing, the hoboes who worked there during the Depression, the animals and their personalities, his Irish sense of humor, and his love and respect for the natural world carried him across the U.S. to festivals, schools, conventions, reunions, workshops, the Smithsonian Folk Festival, and the Jonesborough, Tennessee International Storytelling Festival.  For 22 years he served as artistic director of the Minnesota Storytelling Festival held annually in Austin; for 13 years he hosted “Remember When” on KAUS Austin radio, and for three years the Michael Cotter Show on WHO Des Moines. He is the recipient of the Circle of Excellence Storyteller award presented by the National Storytelling Network. His legacy and stories will continue on through his voice and words on cassette tapes and CDs and in his books.

The complete obituary is available at  Story Arts of Minnesota joins in celebrating Michael's contributions to the art of storytelling, as we mourn his passing.