Love in full bloom

Togetherness remains precious
By  Pamela  H.  Sacks

Alfred Cotton has given his wife, Claire, a dozen red roses on every Valentine’s Day since 1934.

That’s 73 years of roses, and his wife fully expects that his record will remain unbroken as of today.

“If I don’t get them, you’ll hear about it all over this place,” Mrs. Cotton declared as she, her husband and their son, Alfred Jr., broke into laughter.

In October, Mr. Cotton, 95, moved from an assisted-living facility into University Commons, the UMass Memorial Medical Center nursing home. Two months later, after University Commons renovated a room to accommodate them both, Mrs. Cotton, 92, joined her husband. She arrived just in time for the holidays.

The Cottons had not lived apart since their marriage in 1937, and the separation was painful. She would find a ride to University Commons seven days a week to visit her husband.

Mr. Cotton would come downstairs with his wife when she departed and remain on the sidewalk outside the front door, staring at the van that transported her until it was out of sight, said James V. Divver, the administrator of University Commons.

“I dreaded the time she would leave every day,” Mr. Cotton said.

The Cottons fell in love when she was 18 and he was 21. They married three years later, and neither has ever had eyes for anyone else. Both were born and raised in Athol, and both seem to exemplify down-to-earth Yankee values. When asked the secret of their successful marriage, they each considered for a moment.

“From the beginning, I think we both understood and appreciated each other,” Mr. Cotton said. “Both of us were not selfish. We tried to help each other and make each other a little happier.”

“I think we were both adults,” his wife added firmly. “We acted in an adult way.”

When asked how she and her husband met, Mrs. Cotton laughed.

“I hate to tell you,” she said. “It was a drive-by.”

She was scurrying along, tardy in getting to her job as a secretary at the Athol Town Hall. He was an engineering student at Dartmouth College and happened to be driving by in his 1930 yellow Chevy Roadster. He had known who she was while both were students at Athol High School.

“I asked her if she wanted a ride,” he recounted. “She said `Yes’ because she was late.”

He asked her for an evening date. They headed to a band concert in Barre. It turned out there was no concert, so they drove to Shrewsbury for ice cream and returned home. They started courting. Mr. Cotton got his bachelor’s degree and took an additional year to earn a master’s from Thayer, Dartmouth’s school of engineering.

Their wedding was small.

“We were married June 28. Al was born June 29,” Mrs. Cotton said with a sly grin.

“Five years later,” their son added, chiming in on the family joke with perfect timing.

Mr. Cotton took a job as an engineer and designer for the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program that put the unemployed back to work constructing bridges, retaining walls, small buildings and cemeteries. A project at Silver Lake Cemetery in Athol, where gravestones were set in a series of tiers, drew national attention, Mr. Cotton said.

Seeking a change, Mr. Cotton worked for a while for the National Geodetic Survey. In 1940, he was recruited by U.S. Steel in Worcester. The company needed an engineer with construction experience to design and build a plant in Quinsigamond Village. Mr. Cotton oversaw the construction of one of the biggest steel and cable plants in the country, 17 acres under one roof.

The Cottons moved from Athol to Salisbury Street on Worcester’s West Side, where they lived for 41 years. It was there that they raised Al Jr., who is now director of corporate communications for Nypro Inc., and their younger son, John, who lives with his family in Pennsylvania. They have two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Mr. Cotton recalled a strike in 1946 against U.S. Steel, when his wife’s Valentine roses were under threat. As a member of management, he was required to stay in the plant night and day. He called around to florists and explained the situation. Ed Berg of Berg Florists assured Mr. Cotton that he would personally deliver the flowers. When he arrived at the door, flowers in hand, Mrs. Cotton had no idea who he was.

Mr. Cotton retired from U.S. Steel in 1968 at the age of 56 to enter public life. He ran for a City Council seat, with his wife as his campaign manager. He served on the council for 12 years, from 1968 to 1980. Mrs. Cotton also acted as Al Jr.’s campaign manager when he ran for the Worcester School Committee. He won and served from 1970 to 1978.

The Cottons moved to Florida in 1984 and stayed for 15 years. He played golf, and she taught exercise in the pool at their condominium complex. They traveled the world – Morocco, Ireland, Venezuela, Hawaii. “You name it, we’ve been there,” Mrs. Cotton said. They lived in Pennsylvania for a while and then returned to Worcester.

All these years later, Mrs. Cotton knows what’s in store for her on the 74th Valentine’s Day the couple has shared.

So what can Mr. Cotton expect?

A kiss in the morning and a kiss at night. “The same thing I always do,” Mrs. Cotton said, beaming.