Editor's Note: Newsday.com is catching up with former Long Island homecoming kings and queens to reflect on being named royalty and see what they're up to now. If you're a former Long Island high school homecoming king or queen and would like to participate, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1973, Abby Cotler was a senior at Patchogue-Medford High School. English was her second language and she came from a low-income family where she was one of eight children.
“There weren’t a lot of minorities at Patchogue-Medford at that time,” Cotler, who was then Abby Pastor, said. “It was a very small percentage of Hispanic kids and African-American kids, and I was Hispanic.”
Cotler said she never thought of herself as part of the “in group.” But because she felt her class respected her leadership skills, she was voted student body president.
She was still surprised when she became homecoming queen.
“I mean in some ways it was because that was a more social thing than a leadership thing,” Cotler said.
While in college she met her husband, Don Cotler. They married 43 years ago, when she was 19 and he was 21. Her husband became a pediatrician, and she worked part-time as a substance abuse counselor at Patchogue-Medford High School. The couple moved to the South Orange-Maplewood area of New Jersey in 1986, once Cotler finished his residency.
She then became a part-time financial and academic counselor for the Puerto Rican Institute at Seton Hall University, and served a stint on the board of education for the South Orange-Maplewood School District.
Cotler retired in 2002 once her two sons, Joaquin and Ezequiel, left for college and she started going each winter to Puerto Rico, where they own a second house. She became a full-time activist both on the mainland and in Puerto Rico. In New Jersey, she is a member of the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, which promotes community diversity. In Puerto Rico, she joined the International Friendship Club, a nonprofit that supports spreading Puerto Rican culture and philanthropy.
One of her big causes is fighting for Puerto Rico’s right to vote in the presidential election. Her activism strengthened after she was stranded in Puerto Rico for two weeks following Hurricane Maria.
“The scariest thing for me was not the hurricane,” Cotler said. “The worst part was afterwards...there was no leadership. Nothing from [President Donald] Trump, except when he came to throw those paper towels to people, which was an amazing insult. I wish people would have let the paper towels fall beside them.”
Puerto Rico recently increased the official hurricane-related death toll from 64 to 2,975 following an independent study by university researchers.
Cotler was not surprised with the revised death toll. After briefly returning to New Jersey, she went back to Puerto Rico to help relief efforts, including passing out supplies like mosquito nets and water filters.
She plans to speak out even more about gaining the right to vote for Puerto Rico, and also wants to live in Puerto Rico six months out of the year once her husband retires.
“How much of a voice do you have if you can’t vote?” Cotler said. “How much power do you really have?”