Poet, author, and professor James Finn Cotter of Newburgh, N.Y., the longest-serving faculty member Mount Saint Mary College has ever known, passed away on Saturday, January 8.
He leaves behind two sons, a daughter, and many other family members. He was predeceased by his wife of more than 40 years, Emily. He was 92 years old.
"James Finn Cotter's legacy is truly part of the DNA of the college," said Dr. Jason N. Adsit, president of the Mount. "We are so thankful to have had the honor of knowing this wonderful man and his memory will be cherished by all."
Known to his pupils as "Dr. Cotter" and to his many friends and colleagues as "Jim," Cotter changed the lives of thousands of Mount students over the course of his 57 years of service. A dedicated educator, Cotter continued teaching until his retirement from the Mount in the late summer of 2020.
Cotter started his tenure at the Mount in 1963 and took on many roles over the decades to help the college grow, including teaching or chairing the divisions of Humanities, Arts and Letters, and Religious Studies and Philosophy. He was best known as a professor of English.
In addition, Cotter's impact on the college's annual Commencements cannot be understated. He was Master of Ceremonies at 40 Mount graduations, including the Mount's first Commencement in 1964. He also wrote the college's alma mater, which is sung at every Mount Commencement ceremony to this day.
"James Finn Cotter was truly the fabric of Mount Saint Mary College," noted Sr. Catherine Walsh, O.P., a Dominican Sister, a former Mount professor of Communications, and a longtime friend of Cotter. "I had Jim as a teacher when I was a student at the Mount. He challenged me to constantly delve deeper into the content of literature. He did not abide shoddy work. As a scholar, his work on Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dante were renowned. As a friend, you could not find one more loyal. He was a cheerful storyteller and an avid lover of the Hudson Valley."
She added that Cotter helped to make the Mount "a place where scholars challenge you to be better than you thought you could be. Jim helped make good students into better ones and better ones into excellent ones. Hopkins would say 'the world is charged with the grandeur of God.' I would say Jim brought some of that grandeur to our world at MSMC. Rest in Peace, my friend and mentor."
In 1966, Irene Nunnari directed Public Relations at the Mount and served as an adjunct professor. It was Cotter who requested that Nunnari to join the full-time faculty. Now a well-known professor emerita of the college, Nunnari was deeply saddened by Cotter's passing.
"James Finn Cotter was a legend at Mount Saint Mary College and a leader in the Newburgh community. Poet, author, scholar, master teacher, and friend, he excelled in all of his pursuits....He lives on in memory."
When he wasn't teaching or aiding with administrative tasks for the college, Cotter delved into his own scholarly work. He was a celebrated translator of Dante's Commedia, which he began on the backs of envelopes and scrap papers early one Christmas morning in the 1980s before his children woke up. Among a great many other publications, Cotter authored Beginnings: The First Twenty-Five Years of Mount Saint Mary College and A New Life: Learning the Way of Omega.
Outside of academia and his personal pursuit of wisdom, truth, and compassion, Cotter volunteered at the Newburgh Free Library; assisted as a Eucharistic minister for St. Mary's and St. Patrick's; and wrote reviews of local plays and concerts for local newspapers. He also loved hiking and nature, often using his experiences outdoors as a base for his poetry and prose.
A few years before retiring, Cotter – while seated in the campus library named in his honor – was recorded reading some of his poetry. He ended the session with his poem "The Day I Die."
It reads, in part: "The day I die can be part of a journey, into the bright, starry, heavenly harmony of this great galaxy: another odyssey across an unknown sea. The day I die shall be the moment of unity, when my humanity and His divinity meet at last, lovingly, to end my short story in unending glory."
A tribute to James Finn Cotter, including a recording of his poetry reading, can be found at www.msmc.edu/Cotter.