There’s this photograph.
It hangs in a small corner on the west wall at the State King. Couldn’t even venture a guess how long it’s been there. It’s one of hundreds of photos chronicling the history of this particular watering hole and the greater Olean area.
Raymond E. “Cotton” Donnelly is shown straddling a 1955 Harley Davidson, proudly posing as one of the first motorcycle patrolmen with the Olean Police Department. For decades — nearly every night for as long as anyone can remember — Cotton sat in the same stool, some eight feet from his picture, and enjoyed a tall Budweiser and a shot of Kessler, if he so desired.
That motorcycle unit outlived its useful life within a few short decades. But it’d take about another 60 years after that picture was taken for the Mayor of East Olean, as he was affectionately known, to outlive his.
The grave eventually calls everyone, and it called Cotton early Thursday morning. And if you’d ask the numerous witnesses to the local icon’s life, even 93 years was too soon.
He was a World War II veteran, a retired police captain, a farmer, a truck driver, a husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and perhaps just as importantly, a friend.
Thursday evening at the State King rolled around and there stood one of his grandsons, Sean McLaughlin, snapping a picture of a beer and shot that had been poured in Cotton’s honor. No one would sit in Cotton’s seat near the end of the bar closest to the door. Knowing the regular crowd down at the King, no one ever will.
“IT WAS HIS special seat and will always be his special seat,” said Ed “Krazy Eddie” Havers, the State King’s owner. “I just told him a couple weeks ago, ‘This is Cotton’s corner and it’ll always be Cotton’s corner.’”
Friday evening came, along with it an Irish wake at the Ancient Order of Hibernians, where Cotton was a member. The drinks flowed freely and so did the stories. The Hibernians, looking to quickly replace a Donnelly with a member of his bloodline, inducted his other grandson, Tim McLaughlin.
“It’s like losing an old monument, like a historic building that burned down and can’t be replaced,” retired Olean city firefighter Ray Diffenderfer said that night.
Cotton’s life story easily lent itself to a detailed, heart-felt obituary. Most folks would be lucky to have lived and loved long enough for a similar tribute.
There’s a lot to be said for what he did for the city, especially East Olean, and even more to be said for those little interactions through time, which now lie etched in the hearts of those who loved him most.
Even his tractor was iconic. It plowed thousands of gardens for his friends and neighbors and spent countless hours ferrying neighborhood kids around in a wagon. And the fruits — and veggies — of that tractor’s labor supplied a produce stand near his 537 King St. home for more than 60 years.
Notably, he was seen poking around on that tractor as recently as three years ago.
BUT HE KEPT on doing that Irish jig. The night of Cotton’s passing, Sean showed me a video of Cotton dancing with his young great-granddaughter, Stevie, the daughter of city Common Council President Ann McLaughlin, during last year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration at the AOH.
I’ve lived next-door to Sean and two doors down from Cotton for less than three years — a punctuation mark in his long life. The times I saw him down at the State King, Cotton said very little, hunched over his beer — just one beer — until he and Sean moseyed back home up King Street.
Any given night, if someone happened to be sitting in his stool, they’d quickly hop up and usher Cotton to his rightful place. He never understood why. And that’s definitive of the world’s best people: Willing to bend over backward for a stranger while expecting nothing in return.
Krazy Eddie, himself approaching retirement age, recalled walking home from elementary school and seeing Cotton at his produce stand.
“He’d always give us something to take home to our parents, some squash or ears of corn or something,” he said. “That was years ago when people didn’t have a whole lot. He’d tell us to tell our parents, ‘This is from Cotton.’ He did that for years. I’m talking about when I was in third or fourth grade.”
A tear then glistened in Krazy Eddie’s eye.
“At the State King, we told him he was the Mayor of East Olean. That’s exactly what he was,” he said. “There’s so many people who are going to miss him.”
City Judge William H. “Hank” Mountain III certainly will. Though years apart, Judge Mountain and Cotton shared the same May 23 birthday. A fellow AOH member, the judge said his friend had a “heart bigger than Ireland.”
“Everybody was a good friend to Cotton Donnelly,” he said. “That’s something you can take to the bank.”
Judge Mountain went on to recall a gift he bestowed for Cotton’s 90th birthday.
“WE GAVE HIM 90 free beer chips for the State King,” the judge said. “We put them in a burlap bag and we handed it to him, and honest to God, he took that bag and held it up and said, ‘I feel like I’ve just come to the end of the rainbow.’”
For that same birthday, Ann McLaughlin compiled a picture video of her grandfather-in-law’s life story. The family proudly displayed that video — featuring pictures of Cotton as a medic in the European Theater, the bar, his workhorse, his tractor, his beloved garden and so much more — at the Guenther Funeral Home.
There were several photos of Cotton sitting and watching his garden grow. People don’t often pause to enjoy life like that anymore.
The final song on the video was Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
“When I was doing that, it made me realize this man truly lived life,” Mrs. McLaughlin said. “He’s a man that actually lived life every day. That’s what’s so heart-warming and special to me. I truly believe in my heart he lived life and never had one single regret. As the song says, he did it his way.”
And then there’s the great-grandson, little Liam Clair McLaughlin, named in honor of Cotton’s brother Clair, who was killed in World War II. It’s been a privilege seeing Liam grow up next door, and it’s easy to see the family resemblance.
Cotton raised a strong family. That’s undoubtedly his most impressive accomplishment. Liam and Stevie are too young to know it yet — and they’ll likely remember only snippets of a few short years with their great-grandfather — but they’ll always feel Cotton’s legacy ... one way or another.
(Contact reporter Kelsey M. Boudin at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @KelseyMBoudin)