Melville Peter Coté of Provincetown died on Nov. 27, 2019 at the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers. He was 82. His death came as a result of the combined effects of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
Mel was a lifelong educator and student and a true Renaissance man. He was an avid traveler, gardener, fisherman, and cook, a loving father, uncle, brother, and son, and a genuine friend to everyone he met.
He was also a supportive partner to his wife of 56 years, Polly, as she practiced and taught drawing, painting, and printmaking. He devoured all forms of the written word, enjoyed talking about everything under the sun, and killed the New York Times crossword.
He was born on Aug. 3, 1937, in Willimantic, Conn., the first of four sons of Wilfrid and Mary Coté. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1958, where he played guard and linebacker on the football team and helped start the lacrosse program. He grew to love Provincetown working summers at the Bonnie Doone Restaurant (now Mussel Beach Health Club). After graduating, Mel worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, then joined the Marines and spent Christmas 1960 at boot camp on Paris Island, S.C.
Polly Swanson and Mel were married on July 25, 1961, at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Provincetown and spent that summer in town before embarking on a series of journeys that would shape their lives. After Mel earned his master’s degree at Wesleyan in 1962, he and Polly took their newborn son to Honolulu to begin his teaching career at Punahou High School. While there, he jumped out of planes on Pacific islands as a Marine Reservist to earn extra money for his young family. Their only daughter was born there and died in infancy; a second son also was born there in 1964.
They returned in 1965 so Mel could study at Harvard, where he earned his Ed.D. in 1971. Their third son was born in 1966 at the Floating Hospital in Boston. Dean Ed Kaelber at the Ed School became a mentor and one of Mel’s best friends. Mel spent two years with his young family in Nigeria working with USAID at the new Comprehensive High School in Aiyetoro.
In 1970 he joined Ed and others to start the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine; Ed as its first president, and Mel as assistant to the president and director of admissions and student affairs. Mel and Polly’s Victorian home on the hill overlooking Hulls Cove was a hub of COA faculty social life and was filled with exuberant sons and neighborhood children. COA remains the only college in the country offering degrees solely in human ecology.
In 1977 Mel began working at Princeton University as director of the Princeton Education Center at Blairstown, providing outdoor education programs for inner-city youth. In 1982, the family moved to New Hampshire, where Mel worked at Notre Dame College in Manchester. He returned to COA in 1987 as administrative dean, renewing friendships as well as his love for the beauty of Mount Desert Island. Once again their home, this time a Buckminster Fuller dome in Somesville, became a welcoming destination for friends from near and far. From 1994 to 2000, Mel also served as executive director of the Society for Human Ecology.
Mel and Polly returned to Provincetown full-time in 1999 upon Mel’s retirement. Mel immersed himself in local organizations like the shellfish commission, harbor committee, and Center for Coastal Studies. He started a garden care business with Polly, and together they hosted memorable dinner parties for family and a never-ending parade of friends from Provincetown and their world travels. They adored their pet dogs and cats and went on long walks in town and at the beach, often ending up chatting with friends at the Old Colony Tap. Mel loved fishing and clamming to supplement their bountiful garden harvest. No one will forget the extraordinary Halloween costumes Mel and Polly wore to the annual Beachcombers party, or how they tore up the floor dancing every New Year’s Eve.
The memories of who Mel was and what he accomplished sustain his family and friends. “Mel was an important leader, team builder, and vision maker,” said one COA colleague. “He and Polly provided powerful models of what living the Good Life might mean for a crew of folks trying to reinvent higher education, save the planet, and have a rollicking good time at it.”
Mel is survived by sons Melville Jr. and his wife, Edith Rodrigue, of Wakefield; Adam of Santa Barbara, Calif.; Quentin and his wife, Kelly McEwen, of Acton; by brothers Paul and his wife, Sydnie, of South Windsor, Conn.; and Randy and his wife, Paula, of Eureka, Mont.; by sister-in-law Patricia of Bradenton, Fla.; sister-in-law Gail Shields and her husband, Robert Shields, of Narragansett, R.I.; by grandchildren Claire, Maya, and Sophie, of Acton; and Lily and Sage of Santa Barbara; and by four nieces and one nephew. He was predeceased by his wife, Polly; his brother, Robert; and his daughter, Anna Cassandra.
The family is grateful to those who provided generous care, compassion, and support for Mel and his family during his challenging final years. Those include the Residence at Melrose Station, Home Instead, Care Dimensions, and the many physicians, nurses, and assistants from the Tufts Medical Center and Hallmark Health Medical Center. Special thanks go to Edith, who became Mel’s best friend during his final two years and made sure he got the care and attention he deserved.
A public memorial service in Provincetown will be announced for the spring, followed by a private event in Bar Harbor in the summer. Donations in Mel’s honor may go to the Center for Coastal Studies (coastalstudies.org) or Care Dimensions (caredimensions.org).