By Bill Foley

Believe it or not, but John “Harp” Cote was capable of reading the Riot Act.

Well, as much as the gentlest of gentleman can read such a lecture, anyway.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Bernie Boyle. He had to face the wrath of Harp one day because Bernie instructed a Butte Central graduate to send a thank you note to Harp and Esther Cote.

The Cotes paid for four years of tuition for that graduate, allowing him to attend the school his family otherwise could not have afforded. Like most of their giving, they did not want anyone to know. They did not even want the graduate or his parents to know who was responsible for sending the checks.

So, after receiving any kind of recognition, even as small as a thank you note, Harp called Bernie, and he was not happy.

The boy who sent that note was not the only high school graduate who unknowingly had his tuition paid for by Harp and Esther. Most of the time, they were able to keep their generosity a secret.

Harp and Esther were the Moonlight Grahams of the Mining City, but they so often worked their magic in the background.

Harp passed away at his home Thursday night. He was 99 and a half. He lived the last 14 months with a broken heart following the death of Esther in April of 2022.

What an incredible run that was for Harp and Esther. Now that they have both left this Earth, we have to wonder just how fortunate we were to have them for so long. We have to think of just how much better off we all are because they were here.

When you ask someone what makes Butte such a great place, nine times out of 10, the answer is “the people.”

Harp and Esther were those people. They were a shining example of humanity at its finest. They did anything they could to help those in need, and they never wanted anything in return.

Former Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Don Peoples Sr. told me recently that he never knew a better man than Harp. Peoples is in his early 80s, and he said Harp called him nearly every day to check in on him.

“He’s 99 years old and he calls to make sure I’m OK,” Peoples said with a laugh. 

Harp was a World War II veteran, one of the greatest of the “Greatest Generation.”

He worked hard and smart as a businessman, starting with the famed Copper Club in Meaderville. He worked for the New York Life Insurance Company for decades. 

He signed on for the loan that helped get the Maroon Activities Center built, and Bernie says there is no way that great facility would have been built without him.

Harp, of course, downplayed that.

Trying to keep track of all Harp’s business successes and generosity through the years is a nearly impossible task. The main reason for that was that Harp never wanted recognition for his giving, so much of it went unnoticed.

Well, it went unnoticed by everyone except the recipients of that generosity.

Everything I knew about Harp Cote came from my Grandpa Bill. My grandpa had an amazing ability to see through B.S., and he often called people out on it.

So, my grandpa respected John Kennedy, Robin Selvig and maybe a handful of other people. To him, nobody ranked higher than Harp Cote and his good pal Tucker McGree.

Those two could do no wrong in my grandpa’s eyes. My dad’s dad spoke of Harp like my mom’s mom spoke of the pope.

On Jan. 18, I texted Harp’s son Paul to see if his dad would be a guest on my podcast, the ButteCast. I knew Harp’s health was failing a bit, and I wasn’t sure if he would even know what a podcast was.

I figured getting the Butte legend on the show was a longshot at best. But within 25 seconds, Paul got back to me.

“I just talked to him,” Paul wrote. “He would love to.”

The next day, I met Harp at his house for a conversation. He told me about his days serving on the USS San Juan in the Pacific Theatre during World War II, downplaying his service, naturally.

He said his job as a doorman at the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. was maybe the best job he ever had.

“I got to stop all the pretty girls and get their name and address,” he said with a laugh. “It was a fun place.”

That job, by the way, was well before he met Esther.

Harp told me about some of the antics of McGree and his longtime New York Life partner Kevin Shannon. He talked about going to Princeton University with Albert Einstein, joking that he tied with the world-renown theoretical physicist for the head of the class.

He talked about the great people of Butte and why he spent most of his 99 plus years in the Mining City.

“I never regretted a moment I lived in Butte,” he said.

When asked him why he never ran for office to take advantage of his popular name, he joked “I never wanted people to be calling me an S.O.B.”

Toward the of the podcast, I asked Harp how he wants to be remembered. He thought for a second and said, “He did what he could. That’s all I ever did, what I could. If I could help, I did. If I couldn’t help, I got out the way.”

Harp, of course, will be remembered for so much more than that. He will go down as one of the best and nicest people this town has ever seen. He will go down as a Mining City Legend.

It was an amazing honor to sit down Harp that day. The conversation was exactly why I started the podcast in the first place.

As we spoke, I couldn’t help but think of how great the world could be if everybody tried to be like Harp and Esther.

It was hard to believe Harp was ever capable of reading the Riot Act.

— Bill Foley can be reached at Follow him at Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.