Colby Mourns the Death of Linda K. Cotter, Wife of Former President William R. Cotter and Tireless Advocate for Students

By Laura Meader
January 10, 2021

The Colby community is deeply saddened by the loss of Linda K. Cotter, LL.D. ’00, who graced Colby’s campus as “first lady” from 1979 to 2000. Linda Kester Cotter died Jan. 8, 2021, at her home in Concord, Mass. She was 83. 

Linda Cotter and President Bill Cotter on stage at a Campaign for Colby event when the Linda K. Cotter Internship Fund was announced.

Linda Cotter devoted enormous time and energy to create and nurture internships for Colby students, an effort that opened important doors for students and strengthened alumni ties to the College. The Linda K. Cotter Internship Fund, endowed and named in her honor, forever links her to the transformative career opportunities she so fervently championed.

“Linda brought force, grace, and intellect to the issues and organizations that aligned with her clear and abiding values,” President David A. Greene said in a letter to the community. “Long before we had the resources and partnerships of DavisConnects, she worked tirelessly to ensure Colby students would have life-changing internships and careers. Her impact here and well beyond our campus is indelible.”

Linda Cotter and her husband, Colby’s 18th president, William “Bill” R. Cotter, LL.D. ’00, arrived on Mayflower Hill in 1979 with their three children, David, Deborah, and Elizabeth, who they raised on campus. Soon after, she began volunteering in Colby’s then Career Services Office and quickly assumed the role of associate director of off-campus study coordinating student internships. She also served as a member of Colby’s women’s studies advisory board and as a Hillel advisor.

A Wellesley College alumna who graduated with honors in 1958, she was accepted to Harvard Law School, one of 15 women in a class of 500. She declined Harvard’s offer, wary of a climate unreceptive to women, and also turned down a doctoral fellowship at Columbia. Instead, while her husband earned his law degree, she taught school in Lexington, Mass., and earned a master’s in teaching from the Harvard School of Education.

During the 1960s and ’70s, Linda and Bill Cotter worked and traveled internationally and started a family. Linda Cotter taught school on three continents—in New York, Nigeria, and Colombia, where she taught English and English literature at the University of the Andes. She also worked as an official for the Ford Foundation, the Ellis Phillips Foundation, and the Oak Foundation in Geneva, where she helped launch its women’s rights program.

At Colby, “Linda Cotter wrote her own script, juggling roles as wife, mother, volunteer, and professional, and as a behind-the-scenes assistant to the president,” wrote College Historian Earl Smith in Mayflower Hill: A History of Colby College. Always, he concluded, “with an unfailing antenna for the needs of the broader Colby family.”

In 1997 Colby trustees named the student center Cotter Union in honor of Bill and Linda Cotter, seen here in front of the union.

Her roles as president’s wife and associate director of off-campus study were mutually supportive. Her interaction with alumni, fostered by extensive travel, and her regular contact with students created connections between the groups that propelled Colby to prominence as internships gained importance in the 1990s.

National prominence also came as a result of the Cotters’ emphasis on international study, which led to an increase in students studying abroad and campus-based international programs. They also helped initiate a grant from the Oak Foundation that established the Oak Foundation International Scholarship Fund in 1997. That same year, they were instrumental in the creation of Colby’s Oak Institute for Human Rights.

In 1999 the Cotters established the William R. and Linda K. Cotter Debate Fund to ensure that each year the College hosted at least one debate on a current topic with widespread interest on campus. The debate fund began providing resources for students and faculty members to conduct collaborative research on complex, provocative issues in 2015.

Linda Cotter shared her time and talent in the greater Waterville community as well, playing key roles in area United Way campaigns and with the YMCA, Oak Grove-Coburn School, and the Maine Children’s Home. A founder of the Mid-Maine Global Forum, she also helped establish Waterville’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Observance.

The Cotter family in 1979, shortly after they arrived on Mayflower Hill.

Those who knew Linda Cotter recall her warm smile, her genuine concern for others, and her personal acknowledgment to others for jobs well done. “She routinely wrote notes of condolence or congratulations to employees campus-wide and unfailingly wrote thank-yous to Dining Services and PPD following major events,” Smith said. 

For her exceptionally valuable participation in the success of the College, she was presented with the Colby Brick Award in 1994. When President Cotter retired in 2000, after serving longer than any other president in Colby’s history, he and Linda were joint recipients of the Marriner Distinguished Service Award. 

As Linda Cotter prepared to leave Mayflower Hill, she told Colby Magazine that what she’d miss most was the student interaction. No longer would she be able to hold conversations with bright students in the dining halls and elsewhere across campus. “There aren’t many people in their 60s,” she said, “lucky enough to feel that connected.”

Predeceased by her daughter Deborah, Linda Cotter leaves her husband of 61 years, Bill, children David and Elizabeth, two granddaughters, and a sister. Click here to read the family’s obituary.