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‘He always had a smile on his face’

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Former judge-executive, school board chair Tommy Cotton dies

By BEN CARLSON

In a county dominated by Democrats, he became what is believed to be the only Republican to serve as its judge-executive.
As chairman of the school board, he was involved in perhaps the most controversial education decision ever made: closing Western High School in 1989.
Yet through it all, Tommy Cotton remained a person beloved by nearly everyone who knew him, both in politics and in life.
That life ended Saturday when Cotton, 76, fell ill and died at Frankfort Regional Medical Center, sparking tributes from those who served with him, lived near him and covered his lengthy career in the press.
“Perhaps the greatest testament to the kind of man Tommy was came when my father passed away in January of 1985,” said John Herndon, sports editor of The Anderson News.
“There was a big snow on, about 10 inches, the best I can remember. I left the funeral home visitation to tend to our cattle. When I got to the farm, I found that they had already been fed and a drinking hole had been chopped in the ice. I found out that it was Tommy and his brother, Noal, who had done that for my family without being asked.”
Herndon’s remembrance was typical of Cotton, a farmer who served not only in politics, but also for 33 years with the US Postal Service. His other public duties included being a 50-year member of the Anderson Masonic Lodge; a veteran of the Korean War; a lifelong member, elder, deacon and choir member of Alton Christian Church; president of the Lion’s Club; two-time president of the Alton Ruritan Club; and a member of the Bluegrass Regional Mental Health-Retardation Advisory Council, where he was the recipient of the Dorothy A. Miller Award.
Don White, former publisher of The Anderson News, said one of the things he recalls most about Cotton was how he always treated everyone the same.
“I had the good fortune of seeing Tommy in multiple facets of life,” White said, “as a leader in civic clubs, farmer, post office employee, school board member and county judge. The two words that best described him in all those endeavors: consistency and fairness.”
“Although some of his positions were political, I never once saw him act like a politician,” White said. “In that regard, he reminded me a lot of one of Kentucky’s greatest governors, Bert T. Combs.”
Betty Barnett, who served as a magistrate when Cotton was judge-executive, recalled him fondly.
“I thought he was a good person and I respected him,” she said. “We didn’t always agree on everything, but we got along fine.”
Current Judge-Executive John Wayne Conway, who served for years as magistrate of the district in which Western High School was located, said he certainly disagreed with Cotton on closing the school, but respected the decision at the same time.
“We didn’t agree, but we were always friends afterward,” Conway said Monday morning before announcing that his office will close at 1 p.m. Thursday for Cotton’s memorial service.
“He always had a smile on his face. I considered him one of my best friends, and I knew he did me.”
Conway, who also ordered the flag to be flown at half-staff Monday at the county courthouse, said the fact that Cotton was a Republican had no bearing on his thoughts of how he served as county judge-executive.
“In my eye, he was a good judge-executive,” said Conway. “I respected him, and he did a lot of good things for Anderson County not only as judge, but in a lot of ways people didn’t know.”
Conway said that shortly after winning the election last November, he received a letter from Cotton, who at the time was in Florida but promised to stop in and visit Conway when he returned.
Cotton did return last week, but lived only a few days after arriving back in Anderson County.
“I still have that letter,” Conway said.
“Tommy Cotton was a great friend before he was my youth league football coach,” said Herndon. “His family and my family lived across Alton Station Road from each other and one of my earliest memories was seeing Tommy on his big John Deere tractor, baling hay for my family.
“I found out early in life that Tommy was a man you could count on to give you a hand, and then some, when you were in need.”
Cotton is survived by his wife of 46 years, Betty Bailey Hoskins Cotton, three children, five grandchildren, a sister and a brother.
Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. today (Wednesday) at Ritchie & Peach Funeral Home, followed by burial in Sunset Memorial Gardens.