Cotten's Experience Serves Others Well
For much of his life, Michael Cotten has given his time, effort, advice and expertise to help others.
Personable and reserved, the 55-year-old Carthage resident, with graying hair and glasses, pulls from a variety of real-world experiences to help others.
“Basically my entire background has been working with people from challenging communities across all spectrums as far as economic backgrounds,” Cotten says. “A lot of why it’s easy for me to get along and help people is because I am easy to talk to. I like to help. I will work if I have to, but I like to be in a position to be a resource ... Through the years, I think I have acquired a lot of information that can help people.”
Cotten is the outreach coordinator for the Sandhills branch of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. He has held that position for three years.
Prior to coming to work with the Food Bank, Cotten had a long career in law enforcement. He worked nearly 30 years in the N.C. state prison system, beginning as a corrections officer. He worked his way through the ranks, eventually retiring as an assistant superintendent.
“After about the first month, I thought, I like this. I could do it for a living, but I never knew I would rise through the ranks the way I did,” Cotten says.
He adds, “Definitely my experiences have helped me be nonjudgmental about people: Don’t form opinions of people. Get to know people, then learn the individual, not just putting people in boxes or categories. At the same time, from working in the prison system you have a sensibility to have compassion but at the same time not get played. Its a balancing act.”
Cotten aspired to be a police officer or work in law enforcement as a child, but he admits working in the prison system wasn’t exactly what he had in mind after he graduated from Sandhills Community College.
“I knew that I had a knack for being able to work well with people. I connected well with people,” Cotten says. “When I started with the prison system, I really had no idea what I was getting involved in, but once I got involved I enjoyed it; kinda felt in a groove.”
After retiring from the prison system, Cotten took two part-time jobs before landing a post with the Food Bank. He worked as a project coordinator with Chatham County Health Department for a project that dealt with health disparities for black males in Chatham, Wake and Orange counties. After that, he worked in Lee County with families of children with mental health issues. He helped those families identify resources that would help them deal with their children’s conditions.
“I guess my work with people in the community as far as working with groups and advocating for people of need and linking them with resources helped me land this position with the Food Bank,” Cotten says.
An Unexpected Event
Most of Cotten’s relatives still live in Chatham County. He does have a great-aunt who lives at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center, now Peak Resources- Pinelake.
On Sunday, March 29, 2009, Cotten was on his way to visit his great-aunt, something he has done twice a week for several years.
“I didn’t have any idea what was waiting for me up there,” Cotten says.
Cotten says he pulled his truck into the parking lot and drove past a man in the parking lot. That man, Robert Stewart, was standing beside a vehicle holding what Cotten says he thought was a BB gun.
“He puts the gun up and kinda points it at me, and I think he’s just fooling around,” Cotten says matter-of-factly as he recalls the incident.
Before he could pull into a parking place and stop, a window in his truck exploded — shattered by gunfire.
“I am kinda in shock. I am like what in the world,” he says. “I mean you could really feel the force of the shot coming in. I don’t know what’s going through my mind at this point ... I know I have to get out. Then before I get out, he fires two more times.”
One of the two shots hit Cotten in the back of his left shoulder.
Despite being shot, Cotten got out of his truck and headed for the entrance of the rehabilitation center.
“I don’t even look at him. I just know I have to go on in, and I’m thinking he’s going to shoot me in the back, but I know I have to go in.”
Stewart didn’t shoot at Cotten again. Both men eventually enter the facility. Cotten and two others escaped, by hiding in the bathroom of an empty room. Stewart shot and killed seven patients and a nurse, before a Carthage police officer finally subdued him and took him into custody.
“It seemed like forever,’ says Cotten, who learned that his great-aunt was unharmed prior to going to the hospital to get treated for his wound.
Cotten returned to work 48 hours after the incident. The bullet remains in his shoulder.
He credits his years with the department of corrections with helping him deal with being involved in the shooting.
“Working in the prison system, you don’t know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next,” he says. “You may have a riot or you may have a fight, so a certain part of you always stays on edge.”
Cotten grew up in rural Chatham County, the youngest of two children of working-class parents. His sister was seven years older than he was, and their family was of modest means.
“By all standards we were poor, but I didn’t know it,” he says. “We didn’t have the comforts that you have today, like air-conditioning. In fact it was a big deal when we got telephones in, I think, 1967 or ’68.”
His future wife, Shirley, lived a few doors down from the Cottens. The pair dated through high school and were eventually married in 1976.
She describes him as a quiet, serious, athletic young man who was popular in school. She says he was active in student government issues and was a bit mischievous at times.
“I tell everybody we had an arranged marriage,” she says with a laugh. “My daddy really liked him and wouldn’t let any other boys see me.”
He graduated from Chatham Central High School. He received a two-year degree from Sandhills Community College and earned his four-year degree in 1993 from Gardner-Webb.
Today, Shirley Cotten is a supervisor with the Chatham County Health Department. They have lived in Carthage for 28 years. They attend Union Grace A.M.E. Zion Church located between Pittsboro and Goldston. Cotten is active in the community. He is a member of the Moore County Forum. He is a founder of the Farm-to-Table Cooperative, a Kiwanian and a soon-to-be board member of the Greensboro AHEC Community Research Advisory Board.
Cotten is an avid basketball fan, preferring to root for the University of North Carolina. He is a self-proclaimed techno-geek, who has a thirst for information. He admits he is apt to be more opinionated at home, especially with family members.
“I listen a lot and get all sides before leaping in there and making a complete fool of myself,” he says.
His wife has a bit of different description of him.
“He’s kinda nosey,” Shirley says with a laugh.
“He’s good at BS-ing,” she says. “He’s a good listener who likes a sparring partner. If you tell him something, and he doesn’t know much about it, he’s hitting the Internet as soon as he can, learning everything he can about that subject so the next time you bring that subject up, he can act like he knows everything on that topic.”
His favorite sparring partner is his 27-year-old niece, who is also the couple’s goddaughter.
“Her favorite word for him is, ‘Whatever,’” Shirley Cotten says. “She is always trying to come up with something he doesn’t know about.”
That can be tough for a guy who is a good listener, who has a wealth of experience and knowledge he is willing to pass along.
“He has always been good with talking to people,” Shirley says. ‘He likes to talk to people so he can learn from them, and then he can help other people. He has always been somebody who wants to help people who want to help themselves.”
Contact Tom Embrey at email@example.com.
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