Bridge Builder: Coston legacy speaks of compassion, service

Pota Coston was sworn in as a county commissioner in January 2015, the the first African American elected to that post in the county’s history.

Take a drive down to Kenwood Park, and you may find yourself some inspiration. You’ll come upon a monument to someone who loved the park and fought to make it a cherished part of the county, and, in return, the people that loved her wanted to protect her memory. Remembered as a friend, a role model, a person of great integrity, and a bridge builder, Pota Coston is honored there at the heart of Kenwood Park. The large stone monument is the centerpiece, but the bricks laid around its base and inscribed with the heartfelt words of so many do a better job scratching the surface of illustrating what she meant to those that knew her.

Living a vibrant and full life before she ever moved to Fayette with her family, Coston rose to prominence locally when she was sworn in as a county commissioner in January 2015, the the first African American elected to that post in the county’s history. Coston was diagnosed with breast cancer and fought a valiant fight before she passed over on July 3, 2015.

While retiring county commissioners typically are gifted a rocking chair, there was overwhelming support to do something more to honor the memory of Pota. A committee of community members advocated for a monument as a more fitting and lasting tribute.

“I was taken aback. I was humbled that they would even put her at that level of remembering her and remembering her with a monument as being a history maker,” remembered her husband, Bernie, of his thoughts when he was approached about the memorial. “I never would have dreamed they would erect a monument.”

The monument is a centerpiece of Kenwood Park, which became of focal point for Pota in her time on the Board of Commissioners. It was a treasured piece of the county for her, and she wanted to ensure future generations would also be able to appreciate it.

On a visit to Kenwood, she called her husband in awe.

“She said, “Bernie, it’s just so peaceful over there.” She said, “I’ve just gone over there and sat in the pavilion area and looked around. This is something that I think that we really and truly need to be proud of,’” he remembered.

When many in her district thought Kenwood was not getting its proper share of county monies, she made sure it got its just attention.

“Where else to put the monument but there,” said Bernie.

While her time on the commission was cut tragically short, she lives on in the lives of all who crossed her path. She left an indelible mark that isn’t easily forgotten.

“I still have her laugh on my phone. I can’t erase it,” said Dawn Oparah, a close friend who came to love Pota through their shared passion for community involvement in a number of organizations. “You dont know you have a little angel in front of you when she’s in front of you, because she’s just who she is.

“We really did have somebody very special in our midst.”

Pota and her husband with their son, Bernie, upon his graduation from Elon.

Boundaries and borders have never intimidated Coston. Born Pota McDonald and raised in Elkins, West Virginia, she broke down barriers early on. Attending Elkins High School, she was the school’s first African-American cheerleader, and her senior year she was named the squad’s captain, an honor voted on by her peers on a team made of mostly of caucasian girls.

She also excelled in track and was a member of the National Honor Society. Later, she was named a Princess of the Mountain State Forest Festival, a prestigious honor she was nominated for by Congressman Jennings Randolph.

“She was one of those people that got along with everybody. She was accepted by everybody,” said Bernie. “She was very versatile. She could do a little bit of everything.”

Attending college at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, Pota met Bernard Coston. Pota was a lot of things to a lot of people, but she was something specific to her husband.

“First and foremost, she was the love of my life,” he said.

Married in 1982, they welcomed a son, who is now 32 and works in banking in Atlanta.

While at Marshall, she found another mountain to climb. She met a recruiter for the IRS who was looking for accounting students to train to become special agents. While her friend, who was already an accounting major, did not want to tackle the program, Pota added a minor in accounting to her criminal justice major to join the program.

“She would always be willing to seize opportunities when others weren’t,” said Bernie.

She became the first African-American female and first African-American person selected as a federal government special agent in the state of West Virginia.

Coston and her colleagues brought money launderers and drug dealers and other major criminals to justice.

“She worked on a number of high profile cases that had national impact,” said Bernie. “She was going for the big fish. It wasn’t your ordinary run-of-the-mill guys who weren’t paying their taxes.”

She embarked on a career with the IRS that saw her rise from special agent all the way up to Senior Executive Officer, the highest rank for a federal government employee without an appointment.

Over the course of her career, the Costons moved around the country seven times.

“In every last one of those place we lived, Pota left a lasting impact, and in any of those places I get back to visit, people still talk about her, whether it’s in DC, Detroit, New Orleans, or here in Atlanta,” he said. “People are always bringing up the things she did and the way she impacted their lives in one way or another.”

She was respected by her colleagues and subordinates, making her impact as an outlier in a field dominated by white males. Bernie said he’s heard from countless former colleagues of Pota who she inspired.

Early on election day, Pota gets ready to work with Sandra Deshields-Hightower and Liesa Johnson at historic Hopeful Church.

“They say, ‘You don’t know what she did for my career,’” he recalled. “For her to be a female, and an African American on top of that, they could really and truly make her life tough, but, at the end of the day, one of the things she was able to do was work with the agents, and she was also able to work with the administrative staff and make them feel just as valued.”

She brought that same attitude to every stop on her life’s journey.

“She didn’t just get where she got, she reached back to see who she could help,” said Oparah.

County Clerk Tameca White, who was Deputy County Clerk during Coston’s term, counts herself among the many who was inspired by Pota.

“There are certain people in life that, without force, leave their mark and challenge you to see things in yourself that you may have been too afraid to acknowledge before meeting them. Pota Coston did that for me,” she said. “The time with her, although brief, was everlasting. She was intelligent, humble, willing, and gifted to empower the people around her.

“Working with her was a gift that I hope to keep giving.”

Commissioner Charles Rousseau, who filled Coston’s chair on the dais via special election and has subsequently been reelected, is unequivocal in calling her an inspiration.

“Absolutely. I agree with the terminology in saying that she’s a role model, somebody to emulate or mimic,” he said. “It was her life’s work after retiring from the federal government. She saw a need and continued to serve.”

They settled in Tyrone in 2004, and Pota retired in 2008. Bernie, who worked in computers throughout his career and ended up working at the IRS computer center when they moved to Detroit before working up to Senior Manager, retired in May of 2018 and still calls the town they picked out to be their final homestead his home.

“When we came down here, we decided this was going to be it. We wanted to find a place that we really and truly wanted to call home.”

While the Costons were active in every community they lived in, they didn’t get truly invested in politics until Tyrone, when Pota attended a focus group aimed at crystallizing a vision for what Fayette should be in the decades ahead.

“She got that much more interested in it,” said Bernie. “Her attitude was, if this was going to be our last stop, I want to make sure that I’m engaged.”

It was in her DNA to get involved. She was what Oparah called a servant leader.

“Some people use that term, she embodied it,” she said. “She had a desire to make a difference.”

Running unsuccessfully for Tyrone Town Council twice, including a narrow loss by just six votes in the second campaign, she garnered support from both sides of the aisle. Bob Ross, a well-known figure in local Republican politics, stood on a corner with Pota and held a sign for her campaign.

“That’s a prime example of it because how many people can sit here and say that they had a person from the Tea Party hold up a sign for them.”

It all came back to caring for Pota.

“She had compassion for what she did. She had love for people, and she was always willing to see the good side in people,” said Bernie. “She was an excellent listener. When you talked to her, you felt like you were the only person in the world. A lot of people would come back and say, ‘You know Pota’s my best friend,’ and in reality she was everybody’s best friend because of the fact she was so willing to listen and show compassion and love.”

Ask people whose lives were touched by Pota and you’ll hear a familiar term: Bridge Builder. Different people and different view points could find commonality with Pota.

“She had to be a bridge builder. She had to be one of those people who was even-keeled, that was not willing to jump to conclusions. She wanted to find the middle ground and make decisions that were in the best interests of everybody.,” Bernie said. “It’s not about black and white, it’s not about red and blue. We’re talking about our homes, we’re talking about our community, we’re talking about what’s going to happen to them in the future. We’re all neighbors here.”

Oparah saw the same side in Pota.

“She saw the humanity in everyone, even adversaries,” she said. “Every one of those county commissioners, as disparate as their spirit, their thoughts were, their policy thinking was, loved Pota.”

As the issue of district voting loomed large over Fayette, Pota was approached by local activists to consider a run for the County Board of Commissioners. It was a task she did not take lightly, remembered her husband.

“She believed a successful campaign meant putting boots on the ground herself with her volunteers,” he said. “She wanted to make sure she was not just sending people out there to do door-to-door campaigning and she’s not out there. Somebody would say ‘We don’t know what she’s about’ and ‘We don’t know what her campaign is,’ (and her canvassers) would say, ‘Pota, can you come over and talk to them?’”

On election day, she bested incumbent Allen McCarty to become the first African-American candidate ever elected to the Fayette County Board of Commissioners.

“First and foremost, it was a breakthrough as far as being a history maker,” Bernie said. “I think that everyone felt that it was a step that would help the divisiveness, that it would help to unite the community.”

She gained the trust of the voters with hard work and an open mind.

“She made each and every person that she talked to feel like the most important person, and I think that’s one of the reasons why she was able to win that campaign with such a landslide against an incumbent county commissioner,” said Bernie.

Commissioner Charles Oddo called Pota the perfect person for that time in the county’s history.

“She was a marvelous, bridge-building, wonderful person. She was trying to do whatever she could to bring everybody together,” he said. “Thank God she was the person, because I don’t think it would have gone as smoothly with another person. She was there for us. That was her role in life.”

Bernie lamented that Pota passed before the issue could be fully resolved, a process that dragged on through lawsuits and bitter fights before a settlement could be brokered.

“If she would have lived, I think it would not have gotten us back into the courts,” he said. “She had that calming effect on people.”

Perhaps there is no better proof of her life as a bridge builder than the day before she passed. Oparah organized a prayer vigil, and faces from all over the political spectrum filled the county commission chambers to capacity, and perhaps over capacity, to gather together in support of their friend.

“People who weren’t ordinarily friendly were all in the same room,” she remembered. “The variety and diversity of people who loved Pota was just unheard of because she crossed all lines.”

The county will keep moving forward, and the key is to not try to stand in the way of positive progress. While Pota is not here to shape the future she cared so deeply about, there are still so many with similar love in their hearts carrying out their life’s work.

“I think that Fayette County has a very, very bright future ahead of it,” Bernie said. “Change is going to happen with or without you, and if it happens without you, it’s usually because you die, and wouldn’t you want to be part of something as you move forward to say, ‘Hey, that vision became a reality?’”

Pota would want vision makers for Fayette to put the county’s best interests ahead of party politics.

“It’s supposed to be for the good of the community, and unfortunately we lose sight of that. We’re so quick to look at the R or the D and immediately label people that they’re to the left or the right,” said Bernie. “In reality, it should be about what’s in it for the good of everybody, what are we doing so that our children and our children’s children are going to be able to be here in the community and make it a sustainable community.”

Pota will have been gone four years this July 3, but she will forever be etched upon the county, both in the hearts of many and on the monument at Kenwood Park.

“As she elevated herself to a position on the Board of Commissioners, I think her ability to build bridges became apparent, and so we honored her with the memorial out at Kenwood Park,” said Rousseau. “I’m very proud that she’ll have that lasting presence in our community, not only from her life’s work, but also from the memorial that will be out there.”

Both first generation college graduates, Bernie and Pota believed deeply in giving back to help others achieve their education goals, and there are several scholarships set up to that end, including through Pota’s beloved sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, and with the Coston-McDonald Scholarship at Marshall University.

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About

Christopher Dunn has been the sports editor for Fayette Newspapers since 2011, in addition to running Fayette Game Day magazine. He is a graduate of Fayette County schools, as well as a graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism. Follow him on twitter @fayettesports.


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