“The biggest thing she would want all of you to do is continue to love thy neighbor. Continue to be there for one another, because that’s what my mom did on a continual basis.” –Bernie Coston
By Josh Akeman
There was a remarkable outpouring of love during Thursday night’s prayer vigil for County Commissioner Pota Coston, who was put into hospice care this week as she continues to battle breast cancer. Hundreds packed the county commission chambers, so many that the crowd overflowed onto the sidewalks, where people peered in through the windows and listened on a sound system as more than 20 speakers gave tribute to a woman that this year became the first black county commissioner in Fayette County history.
The diversity of speakers who testified to Coston’s preternatural grace and effervescence was itself evidence that she has served as a force to bring people together in Fayette County, as nearly everyone agreed, most notably her own son Bernie Coston.
“I just want to thank everyone here. I’ve known my mom for 29 years, and I’ve known how amazing of a woman she is, and I love hearing everyone’s story of how she impacted you. That’s all she ever wanted to do,” Bernie said. “All she ever wanted to do was continue to be a selfless individual that wanted to push the greater good of this community. This is a perfect example of her spirit continuing to move through all of it.”
Bernie is the only child of Coston and her husband, who is also named Bernie.
Many of Thursday night’s speakers were from the opposite side of the political aisle. Coston, a Democrat, truly connected with people regardless of their politics or anything else that might set two people apart.
Bob Ross, co-founder of the Fayette County Issues Tea Party, attested to the fact that he had been so impressed by Coston during her run for Tyrone Town Council four years ago that he campaigned along side her in her second bid for Tyrone Town Council two years ago.
Ross recalled his first encounter with her at a candidate forum, where a strong contingent of her red-shirted supporters were on hand. Her supporters were easy to pick out in a crowd and usually were a crowd by themselves, wearing the same bright red that is the color of Coston’s sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
Ross said he recognized that Coston was “smart, involved and committed,” when he met her in 2011, and when he campaigned for her for three weeks in 2013 he observed her ability to connect with people first hand.
“Citizen response became absolutely predictable, and I observed this day after day. If they were home and opened the door, Pota immediately began to win them over. Through her grace, her sincere plain talk to everyday citizens, and her ideas for her community. Also she listened, she asked every house she went to what would you like me to do if I become part of your government?”
Leonard Presberg, Board of Education member and Fayette County Democratic Committee Chair, had similarly inspiring stories of campaigning with her. Both won their elections last year in the newly established Fifth District, which includes parts of north Fayette County and Tyrone.
“If you’re going to do something, show up and do it with class and grace, and dignity… if you’re going to do something, do it well, and do it with a plan and be committed,” Presberg said of the lesson he learned watching Coston in action. “I watched her go through this every day, knowing that just being there demonstrated such a personal strength and resilience in the ability to overcome disappointment and defeat and live another day.”
Debbie Britt, representing Piedmont Fayette Hospital, recalled talking with Coston right after her failed run for Tyrone Town Council.
“She was disappointed, not because it was a race, but because it was an opportunity to serve the people. That opportunity, she knew, she would find another way. I looked at her then, as we all have, and said God has a much bigger plan for you. She is destined to have a mark on all of our lives in a very special way,” Britt said.
The somewhat ineffable quality of grace, energy, and generosity Coston displayed was summed up nicely by Virginia Gibbs, a friend and former CEO of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce.
“I believe there are few times in our lives when we are truly blessed to know one of those people who just glow. You know what I mean. A person who has this radiance, that just comes from their goodness, and their spirit inside. It’s like there’s so much love, and grace, and faith, and you can see it. And you can feel the warmth. That’s Pota, isn’t it? She’s like a warm summer breeze that just makes you feel good,” Gibbs said.
Ogechi Oparah, Fayette Democratic Women chair, gave an emotional account of how Coston had inspired her to enter local politics and run for the Fayette County Board of Education last year.
“You were a friend to me, a mentor to me, and you are the reason that in 2014 I ran for school board in Fayette County. It’s because, in 2013, I was walking with you on the pavement, door to door, day to day, and the days that I couldn’t come I knew you were walking every day, pounding pavement, knocking on doors. Because you believed in something greater, that you were a part of something greater, than just you,” Oparah said. “I hope that one day I will be able to do half the things you have done.”
Though she’s only served a short time on the county commission, Coston made an impression on many people who believe in her ability to be a leader for the county.
Commission Chairman Charles Oddo recalled her tirelessness in committing her mind to the business of the county, when she must have been so tired as she battled cancer.
“Her burning desire to be the best Fayette County commissioner she could be shown brightly through her darkest conversations with me. Despite the gravity of her situation she did not dwell on her problems… rather our conversations faithfully turned to our work as commissioners and how we can make our county always a better place to be,” Oddo said.
He also echoed the sentiments of many, a prayer that a miracle be delivered so that Coston can return to her friends and family, and to her role as a leader.
“Quite honestly, this evening, there’s a sense in me that this is not real, that I’m not here, that it’s all a bad dream, and that tomorrow I’ll wake up and everything will be as before. But this is real, we are here, and along with all of you, we’re asking the good Lord to grant the singular wish that each and every one of us desires here. To make Pota well and to return her to her family, her friends, and the county that she loves so much,” Oddo said.
The vigil was closed with a prayer from Mike Stachura, outreach pastor for Grace Church, who also took a moment to sum up what he had heard.
“I was thinking all the way through as each one of you spoke, this night has honored a very, very special person,” Stachura said. “There’s a tremendous outpouring of love in this audience, and it’s very tangible. There is a red-shirted army here, that reflects Pota’s passion for good and excellence and doing things well. Doing the right things at the right time and in the right way.”
Stachura observed that many of the speakers had praised Coston for embodying a verve for life simultaneously with a gentle grace.
Tyrone Mayor Eric Dial recalled his first encounter with her on the campaign trail:
“I did right off the bat know that she was hard working, which every person in this room knows. She was always on the ground introducing herself to as many people as would meet her. And she was loved and respected by many. Because it wasn’t just one red shirt out there, there was an army of supporters. Neighborhoods were full of red shirts. More importantly, she was graceful, she always maintained a pleasant disposition no matter who was around or what the situation was. She seemingly had no enemies,” Dial said.
“God has taught me through Pota what it truly means to rise above the fray and humbly represent God well when cast in the spotlight. And for that I’m grateful. Regardless of how her battle with cancer turns out, we do know one thing. And that is, she will win,” Dial said. “She will either win by defeating cancer and continuing to bless us with her presence, or, because she knows her personal Lord and Savior, she will win by spending eternity in His presence.”
Stachura also summed up that sentiment which was shared by many, that whether or not a miracle is delivered to Coston, her impact will endure.
“Interesting how many of us were able to say she is gentle and passionate. Gentle and passionate. And then came those words from Scripture, that there’s a peace that surpasses all understanding. That there’s a time under Heaven for every purpose. And that there was an inner glow, a radiance of faith that is so strong, and is still there. We experienced it and we will experience it,” Stachura said.