On Saturday, hundreds gathered at the Menard Sports Center to say farewell to former City of Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle, who passed away in October.
Family, friends, peers, and members of the community who may not have personally known Cottle, but knew what he did and what he meant to Wasilla, Valdez, and the state of Alaska, all came to pay their respects to the Cottle family shared stories and recollections of a life well lived.
To say Cottle made an impact everywhere he lived would be an understatement. Tables flanked the complex, filled with photographs, memorials, shadow boxes from his service as a police officer in Valdez, and other mementos from his decades of working to help whatever community he called home. One only needs a cursory glance at his list of accomplishments to get a glimpse into his story..
Cottle was born in 1953 in Palmer, when Alaska was still a territory, growing up in and attending school in Wasilla. He later attended Trinidad State College where he earned a degree in Law Enforcement and Political Science. His academic career continued as he would go on to graduate the Northwestern University Traffic Institute, Chicago, IL, Drug Enforcement Academy in Georgia, the State of Alaska Corrections Academy, and the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
He began his long career in law enforcement in Valdez, serving 23 years, with 8 of those being at the Chief of Police. He later served on the Valdez City Council for a year, then becoming the Mayor, an office he held for 10 years.
Cottle was the first Police Officer in the State of Alaska to be appointed by the Governor to serve on the Alaska Alcohol and Beverage Control Board. He was appointed by the Governor and served 2 years on Alaska Homeland Security Task Force.
Along with his Law Enforcement and Public Service careers in Valdez, he was a huge part of the community. He served on the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, Alaska Municipal League, BPO Elks, Eagles (where he was the Easter Bunny for 25 years), Advocates for Victims of Violence, Pioneers of Alaska, just to name a few of his contributions to Valdez.
It would be 38 years later that Cottle returned to his roots in Wasilla. He served the City of Wasilla as Deputy Administrator for 3 years before becoming Mayor for 6 years in the same building where he attended elementary school. He was appointed to serve as a member of the Alaska Workforce Investment Board and served again on the Alaska Municipal League Board. Bert was a person who didn’t sit idle, instead working to get things done.
During his time with the City of Wasilla, Cottle was instrumental in acquiring grants, land for parks, getting public support to build a new Public Library, the new Police Department building, and securing land for and moving the Veteran’s Honor Wall, which was honored during the service by Wasilla Police Chief Bill Rapson.
“The turnout today is truly a testament to the widespread impact he made in his life. Mayor Cottle dedicated his life to public service and commitment to making a positive, lasting impact across the entire state,” Chief Rapson said, with whom he shared a deep love of law enforcement.
“Today I want to recognize the contributions to the incredible man the Bert was by presenting his wife, Cathy, and the Cottle family with this American flag,” he told the audience before presenting a shadow box with the flag that had flown over the Wasilla Police Department since its relocation in June, 2020. “We owe so much of that credit to Bert. The symbolism speaks to me when I reflect on Mayor Cottle and the immerse service and contributions to the great state and community. He will be deeply missed.”
Earlier this year, Cottle was appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to serve as Community Outreach Manager. He enjoyed his time in this position interacting with many of the communities and Villages in Alaska and serving his State.
“He was an amazing man and will be missed,” said Dunleavy, who was among many local and state public officials that attended the memorial.
“I was struck with how articulate he was, how right to the point he was, how active he was, and I remember asking who that guy was, and the answer was ‘that’s Bert.’ Dunleavy said of the first time he met Cottle at a conference years ago.
When Dunleavy spoke about asking Cottle to serve as Community Outreach Manager for the State, he said:
“I asked him to come help us out, and he said ‘yes.” I thought I’d won the lottery because you didn’t have to tell Bert what to do or when to be there or work at this time, because Bert just was. He was an amazing human being when it came to doing stuff. And for that year that he worked for us, it helped so much.”
“It was an honor to have known him. I wish it was a lot longer…My only regret is I didn’t have enough time with him. I have no doubt that if Bert was governor, if he had enough time, he would have fixed so many problems in this state, because that is what he was focused on. There was never an angle for Bert, other than make it work for everybody.”
Former Alaska Governor Bill Walker, who also spoke at the memorial, recalled first meeting Cottle back in 1973 in Valdez, when Cottle was a brand new police officer and Governor Walker was a brand new juror.
“He was 20 when he was hired,” said Governor Walker, “and there were 2 things he couldn’t do-he couldn’t buy his own bullets because he wasn’t old enough, and he couldn’t go into the bar unless another officer was with him,” he recalled fondly. While that may have been a bit of a disadvantage, he made up for it with his devotion to service.
“He was the epitome of public service. I watched him make a choice. He could have done what I did, and others did at that time, and put our college degrees aside and picked up their tools and made 5, 6, or 8 times the money you could in public service.” The former Governor commended Cottle for continuing to work as a police officer in Valdez, as the population expanded and challenges grew.
Governor Walker regaled the audience with humorous anecdotes from Cottle’s time as a young police officer, working undercover to assist with a sting operation for “the world’s oldest profession.”
“You can imagine, Bert was the one to do it,” he said, recalling that it was all supposed to be done in accordance with standard operating procedures, but when it came time to make the arrest, well,
“Bert went in, made the transaction, and nothing…He kept waiting while the other cops were in the parking lot rolling in their vehicle, making him wait as long as possible before they came in and took care of things.” It was a welcome moment of laughter and brevity among the fond recollections and heavy hearts.
“Bert was all in. When he committed to something, he committed to something.”
Cottle lived the motto “Protect and Serve”. His entire life was spent in public service – protecting others and his community as a Police Officer, as well as serving the communities he lived in, and Alaska, all through public office.
Among his passions was ensuring the care and protection of women, children, and the elders of the community. Cottle worked to start a breakfast program at the elementary school, as well as secure long term senior care in Valdez. Another organization he was passionate about, served and supported is My House Mat-Su Homeless Youth Center in Wasilla, an organization that helps homeless teens.
In his obituary, Cottle’s family echoed the now-familiar sentiment that he was a model of service to the public, writing:
“Bert never cared about recognition or having his name on a building or plaque – he just wanted to help others. He could organize people to accomplish things and then lift them up with encouragement and praise. He believed with all his heart that one person can still make a difference. Bert loved and collected lighthouses. It was said that this was so fitting, as Bert was the rock to stand on and the light in the storm for so many throughout his life. The legacy of service he leaves behind will impact all of us for many years to come.”