**Two of Sue Del Cotto’s three children sat at the kitchen table last week, talking about their mother. Melissa and Mike, with his wife Audrey, had time off from work. Steve Del Cotto and Melissa’s husband Rich Furlong were at work.
Sue Del Cotto was 75 when she died Feb. 22 from a heart attack.
The pain of her death was evident as Mike, Audrey and Melissa, always called Sissy, talked and remembered, but there were smiles and special memories of her, too.
Sue was the first woman deputy in the Barry County Sheriff’s office, a position she held for 25 years before retiring in June, 2001.
She lived in an orphanage until at 15, her sister took her to live with her and her husband. Sue suffered the loss of first born child, son Todd at 12 from leukemia, and as a single mother of four, raised her children alone. “Things were different back then. She lost everything when Todd died; she had to start all over.” Sissy said.
“She was the strongest person I know. She lived life on her own terms; I think she was tough because she had to be,” Audrey said. Mike agreed she had to be strong, but, she had a big heart. She was a member and worked at the Elks lodge for many years, always ready to provide food for occasions, and in a hundred other ways, he said.
She was famous for her authentic southern corn bread, made in a cast iron frying pan. She taught all of her children to cook from scratch and every kid in the house knew how to play Euchre.
Going through mother’s things was painful, and yielded some surprises. Sue never talked about her work, about what it was like being the first woman in a completely male-dominated field or the things she saw.
Sue and Sgt. Ken DeMott won an Achievement Award for their “determination and toughness” in apprehending a couple who had killed a man in Muskegon and ended up in Barry County. DeMott and Del Cotto arrested the pair, sent them back to Muskegon for first degree murder charges and testified against them at trial.
Another time, she and her partner talked a suicidal man out of pulling the trigger of a shotgun he was holding to his head. Sissy found that besides the two ceremonies for those awards, her mother had more than a dozen certificates for advancements in her field they knew nothing about.
Mom never talked about her work, but she suffered from bad dreams, Sissy said. “I’m sure she had PTSD, from the things she saw on her job.”
Audrey found when she married Mike, there were no in-laws, step or half-sisters or brothers; you were a daughter or son, grandson or granddaughter with no other qualifying title; she was now Sue's daughter. The children say they were well aware she was both mother and father to them. “Every year, it was always flowers on Mother’s Day and she got a card on Father’s Day,” Mike said. “Every year.”
When Sue had a stroke 10 years ago, the children decided to move into the family home on North Broadway in Hasting to care for her.
“She wasn’t afraid of anything, except going into a home. She did not want to go into a home. We promised her she wouldn’t have to,” Sissy said. The arrangement was very successful; Sue found great joy with her children and grandchildren around her. “She got a little mellower when she was older,” Sissy said.
Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf was a rookie deputy when he met Sue, who by then had moved up from matron and dispatcher at the jail to deputy as a certified law enforcement officer.
“Everybody was a friend of hers; she knew everybody, I was about the same age as her children; she treated me just like them. She was a mentor, her language was a little rough, but she taught me lessons I've used throughout my career.” He remembers one especially.
She called me one morning when we both had the day off and told me to ‘get my skinny butt out of bed because we were going to play Euchre.’ I told her I would look at my plans and she said, ‘I don’t care what your plans are, we’re going to play Euchre.’”
“We played Euchre out at the Blarney Stone from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. She had a couple of drinks and threw me the keys to the car. I was driving and she slugged me on the shoulder and said, ‘Did you get the lesson?’ I had not.”
“She said: ‘Here’s the thing; those people back there are all people too; treat them like people.’ That helped me immensely in my career.” Sue was a mentor to most of deputies, including Leaf, who treated her with respect, just like the respect she gave the people she handled during an incident.
“Even teens…they would get a hug…it was always, Mrs. DelCotto…Sue paved the way for the women deputies in Barry County and she was a great role model,” Leaf said.
She was an effective deputy, likely because she took training from 1979 to 1999 in 45 special areas that helped her deal with almost any situation she faced. Leaf smiles as he recalls how Sue claimed to be 4 feet 3 inches to her co-workers. “No, no, she was never that tall. But, she didn’t have to be,” he said.
She told the family she was 4 feet 2 inches tall. “Oh, she was 4 feet, nothing,” Mike said. The lack of height did not affect her job. With young people on the streets, she was the “tough mom” especially when that young person was about to, or was, getting into something they shouldn’t be doing, he said.
“She knew everybody. She’d give them a talking to, tell them to get on home and that she was going to call their mother,” Missy remembers.
“She had a great sense of humor… she had to have with the bunch of guys she worked with…it wasn’t unusual for one of us to get up in the middle of the night and see mom and deputies all around the table, playing Euchre or poker.
“They can’t do anything to her now, but many is the time she pulled someone over who had been drinking, took their keys, put them in her car and took them home.” She came on one who guy had too much to drink and fallen asleep. “She took the keys and hid them in the car so he couldn’t find them. He thanked her later.”
Sue specifically said she wanted no funeral and to be cremated. “So that’s what we did. We have her ashes next to Todd’s in the front room, so she’s with him again,” Melissa said. “But, she didn’t say anything about a Celebration of Life. We had it at the Elks Lodge here in Hastings Sunday,” Missy said.
“It went really well. A lot of people were there; it was a hard day, but it was good. It just showed how many people loved her. That was her last visit to the Elks.”
Photos: (upper left) Michelle DelCotto Furlong and her son Levi Dykstra show the picture board they made for a Celebration of Life for their mother and grandmother Sue Del Cotto.
(center right) Michelle Del Cotto Furlong looks at some of the awards earned by her mother Sue Del Cotto, Barry County’s first woman sheriff’s deputy. Mike Del Cotto is in the background.
(middle left) Sue DelCotto, the first woman to wear a Barry County Deputy's uniform.
(lower left) Audrey Del Cotto, husband Mike Del Cotto and Melissa Del Cotto Furlong pose by an autographed photo of Deputy Barney Fife of the Andy Griffith show. Barry County deputies teased Sue Del Cotto about being so petite and nicknamed her “Barney.”