Steve Cotler was a man filled with so much happiness and joy that it spilled over to anyone he met, including his bevy of Healdsburg friends, all store clerks and the thousands of school children he read his books to. He shared his baked bread, his potted flowers, his unending stream of witticisms and, especially, the adventures of his autobiographical character Cheesie Mack. He marketed in big, broad smiles, an infectious curiosity and an honesty that can only be found in a young child, which he always claimed to be. He also claimed to be both a geek and a nerd.
No one, most especially Cotler, deserved the tragic death that claimed him and a daughter in a horrific traffic accident on June 29 near Kaysville, Utah. Both died at the scene at the hands of a drunk driver. He was 77. His daughter was illustrator Ariana Elise Cutler, who used the pen name Violet Charles. She was 37.
Cotler, and his wife Ann Mahoney moved to Healdsburg in 2002 after careers in San Francisco and many assorted travels before that. Ann joined the local chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and Cotler joined the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society board of directors. Their plunge into the Healdsburg community kept getting deeper and deeper with each passing year.
Cotler was born and raised in Oxnard during the age of Sputnik that led him to a life-changing course as a 16-year-old enrollee in the Summer Science Program in 1960. His path led straight to Harvard University where he ended up at MIT and IBM, advancing through the field of computer science before it was so labeled. He was on the production team of the Rapifax, the precursor to the world’s first fax machines.
Between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Healdsburg, Cotler’s life and many career paths passed through Hollywood (twice), a recording and songwriting career with two brothers, a successful career as a securities broker at San Francisco’s Montgomery Securities and as a widely published author of a series of books for young readers, the Cheesie Mack series.
While in Hollywood, Cotler wrote the screenplays for several films, including “Back Track,” that featured Dennis Hopper and Jodie Foster and “Heartwood” (filmed in Willits) starring Jason Robards and Hillary Swank. The film was directed by his brother Lanny Cotler.
News of Cotler’s death was widely circulated when another of his daughters, Julia Quinn, the author of the books that inspired the Netflix TV series, “Bridgerton,” shared her grief on her social media accounts. She remembered her father as being proud to be the “most embarrassing father ever.” At one of his Harvard class reunions, Quinn remembered, “my father started dancing very badly (typical) but with great enthusiasm (also typical). I saw a few teenagers pointing and snickering, and I thought, ‘Yeah, you WISH your dad danced like that.’ After that, I felt nothing but pride in his geekiness. He was willing to try almost anything, and he never let the fear of embarrassment rule his actions. As a friend said after his sudden death, ‘we should all be a little more Steve.’”
Cotler described himself as an “11-year-old author, singer/songwriter, eggman, nerd and educator.” (Cotler sold eggs door-to-door as a young boy.) His Cheesie Mack books had such titles as “Cheesie Mack is Sort of Freaked Out;” “Cheesie Mack is Not Exactly Famous;” “Cheesie Mack is Cool in a Duel;” and “ Cheesie Mack is Not a Genius or Anything.” His books were accompanied with parent and teacher guides. All of Cotler’s Cheesie Mack books were aimed to instill fun, curiosity, impishness, love of reading and a value for intelligence.
Since 2014, Cotler had visited 286 schools and read his books to more than 70,000 grade 3-6 students. His collection is available online at cheesiemack.com.
Cotler and wife Ann were champions of several of Healdsburg education enrichment programs through the local public schools, Healdsburg Education Foundation and local Rotary Club sponsored programs.
Perhaps the most serious pursuit of Cotler’s was the card game bridge. He assisted one of his best friends Al Loebel in teaching bridge at the Healdsburg Senior Center and to various gatherings of friends. Recently, with the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic social gathering restrictions, the senior center bridge classes were set to begin this week (July 13), with Cotler taking the leadership from his friend Loebel who died last April. Instead of a bridge game, a small gathering of Cotler’s friends shared an informal memorial. (Plans for a more formal memorial are yet to be set or announced.)
“Steve and Al were two of the best bridge players in town,” said Loebel’s widow, Liz. “They taught many locals how to play bridge. As Al was getting weaker, he asked Steve to be his co-director with the idea of Steve replacing him. They loved to spar over what was the best bridge strategy.”
Friend Jerry Ogden remembers Steve as a “great story teller — seemingly without limits. Steve had his share of health issues but he always made light of them and persevered. He was very close to Al (Loebel) and was very supportive and comforting during Al’s final days.”
In true testimony to the happiness Cotler spread, Ogden said: “While I am very sad, I can’t help but smile. He was full of joy. It was an honor to be his friend.”