Melville Peter Coté



Provincetown, Mass.

Mel Coté, helped create college of human ecology

Melville Peter Coté, 82, of Provincetown, Mass., died after a battle with cancer on Wednesday, Nov. 27, at the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers, Mass.

Mel was a lifelong educator and student, and a true Renaissance man. He held a variety of jobs, taking him all over the country and around the world. He was an avid traveler, gardener, fisherman and cook. He was a loving father, uncle, brother and son, and genuine friend to everyone he met. He was a supportive partner to his wife of 56 years, Polly, while she seized upon abundant opportunities and subjects to practice and teach drawing, painting, and printmaking. He devoured all forms of the written word, enjoyed talking about everything under the sun, and killed the NY Times crossword puzzles.

Mel was born on Aug. 3, 1937, in Willimantic, Conn., the son of Wilfrid and Mary Coté, the first of four sons. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1958, where he played guard and linebacker on the football team and helped start Wesleyan’s 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 the 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, Hawaii, to begin his academic career teaching 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, and their second son also was born there in 1964. They returned in 1965 so Mel could study at Harvard University, where he earned his Ed.D. in education in 1971. Their third son was born in 1966 at the Floating Hospital in Boston. During that time, he met and worked with Ed Kaelber, a dean at the Harvard School of Education who became a mentor and one of Mel’s best friends. As part of his studies he spent two years with his young family in Nigeria working with USAID at the newly formed Comprehensive High School in Aiyetoro, overlapping for one year with Ed and his family.

In 1970, he joined Ed and other pioneers to start the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor; 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, he began working at Princeton University as the director of the Princeton Education Center at Blairstown, which provided outdoor education programs for inner city youths from the tri-state area. In 1982, the family moved to New Hampshire, and Mel started work at Notre Dame College in Manchester. He returned to COA in 1987 for the final chapter of his academic career as the administrative dean, and renewed friendships as well as his love for the beauty and bounty of Mount Desert Island. Once again, their home, this time a Buckminster Fuller dome in Somesville, became a warm and welcoming destination for friends from near and far. From 1994 to 2000, Mel also served as the executive director of the Society for Human Ecology, a professional society that promotes the use of ecological perspective in research, education and application.

Mel and Polly returned to Provincetown part time in 1994 and full time in 1999 upon Mel’s retirement. Once back in Provincetown, 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 their 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. Together they visited countless art galleries and exhibit openings to view Polly’s and other local artists’ creations. No one will forget the extraordinary Halloween costumes Mel and Polly wore to the annual Beachcomber’s party, or how they tore up the floor dancing at the annual New Year’s Eve party.

Mel had a rich and fulfilling life that was cut short by the combined effects of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. The memories of who he was and what he accomplished sustain his family and friends. An old friend and colleague at COA said it best: “Mel was an important leader, team builder, and vision maker for (COA) and he and Polly really 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.” These qualities were plain to all they met on their journey through life.

Mel is survived by sons Melville Jr. and his wife, Edith Rodrigue of Wakefield, Massachusetts; Adam of Santa Barbara, Calif.; Quentin and his wife, Kelly McEwen, of Acton, Mass.; brothers Paul and his wife, Sydnie, of South Windsor, Conn.; and Randy, and his wife, Paula, of Eureka, Mont.; sister-in-law Patricia of Bradenton, Fla.; sister-in-law Gail Shields and her husband, Robert Shields, of Narragansett, R.I.; grandchildren Claire, Maya, and Sophie, of Acton; and Lily and Sage of Santa Barbara, Calif.; and four nieces and one nephew. He was predeceased by his wife, Polly; brother, Robert; and daughter, Anna Cassandra.

The family is grateful to the people and organizations that 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. We owe a special debt to Edith, who became Mel’s best friend during his final two years and made sure he got the care and attention he so richly deserved.

The family will hold a public memorial service in Provincetown in the spring, followed by a private event in Bar Harbor in the summer. If anyone would like to honor his life, please make any memorial donations to the Center for Coastal Studies at https://coastalstudies.org and/or Care Dimensions at https://www.caredimensions.org/giving/ways-to-give/.

Know when to pay your respects.