I spent a lot of nights sitting next to Art Cotugno at the large conference table used by the Greater Amsterdam School District Board of Education during our meetings at the former Central Administration Building on Amsterdam’s Liberty Street. Our Board had created the position of Director of Staff Personnel in 1983 and Art was selected to fill that role. As he had done in every prior position he had held with the District since he was first hired as a Spanish teacher in 1961, he filled it more than admirably.
Art had climbed the career ladder during his 30 plus year GASD tenure. An Amsterdam native, he served as a teacher, department chair, assistant principal, principal, director and finally superintendent. Others before and after him took similar paths but Art was one of the very few who mastered each. I think it was the fact that he never forgot where he came from so it was an easy and natural thing for him to be able to put himself in the shoes of the folks he managed. He understood, respected and trusted what they did as professionals and whenever you went to him with a problem or idea, you knew he’d give you a fair hearing. As a result, even if his final decision was not the exact one you had hoped for, you walked away knowing you had been listened too and appreciated for coming forward.
As soon as you talked to Art, you liked him instantly. He had that unique smooth yet sort of gravelly voice that was so easy to listen to and I was fortunate to be able to listen to it often. There was very little he didn’t know about the public education system in this community and he always made sure he explained both sides of every issue I asked him about.
One of my favorite memories of Art was his sense of humor. Our Board meetings had a tendency to get long and drawn out. I would often pass the time doodling, usually drawing pictures of others seated around the table. I am a terrible artist and when I’d finish a sketch I’d slide it over to Art and ask him to identify my subject. He’d love to play along and would often add funny captions to my creations. He’d also lean over and whisper familiar phrases in Italian that we had both grown up hearing inside our boyhood homes.
Even in retirement he was one of the most active guys in Amsterdam and a legend on the racquetball court. His family was his life and usually every Friday night you could find him and his lovely wife Mary Grace having dinner at La Cuccina on Amsterdam’s South Side. In fact, it was not seeing him there for a while that first gave me an inkling something was wrong with my friend. I was shocked when I learned about his illness. I miss that unmistakable voice.
Art Cotugno is one of 320 current and former Amsterdam residents profiled in my book, A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam NY Birthdays. If you don’t own a copy you can purchase it at Liberty Fresh Market on Route 30 in Amsterdam or order it online here. I’m working on a second edition of my Amsterdam Birthday Book, which will be available this November.