If you're looking for an epitaph for Beverly Cottman — a longtime Minneapolis high school biology teacher and prolific Black storyteller who died this month at 80 — just use her own words.
"I aspire to be a teller of universal truths," the woman known as Auntie Beverly once said, "to provide emotional depth by the way I tell, and to bring wisdom of the ages to these troubled times."
Or, "An imaginative mind can overcome many obstacles. Storytelling is the key to developing an imaginative mind."
Or, "A story that makes you feel as if you can do anything, that you have the ability to reach and surpass your goals, or that you have the wisdom of the ancestors pushing you forward with love, is perhaps the most powerful tool of storytelling."
The story of Beverly Cottman began in California, and added an education in Washington, D.C. There, as a student at Howard University, she met her husband, Bill Cottman. The two became a force in the Twin Cities' arts and literary scene, Bill as a photographer, writer and radio host, Beverly as a teacher — first at the old Marshall-University High School, then at North High School, and also at arts organizations like COMPAS, where she was a teaching artist.
Beverly Cottman became the very definition of a renaissance woman: a teacher and dancer and fabric artist, a storyteller who interpreted and performed African fables and African-American folk tales, an energetic docent at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a gracious host who whipped up soul food meals for big groups of fellow artists, a mentor to students and an elder in her community.
"She had such an impact because she was a storyteller, an artist and a scientist — a true teacher," said Vusumuzi Zulu, co-founder of the Black Storytellers Alliance, of which Cottman was a member. "She had a very nice, soft, smooth style of storytelling with a smile that was infectious."
As a teacher to thousands of students over the decades, her style was not one of rote memorization or standardized testing. Instead, students became excited about biology when Cottman invited them to tell stories about science.
"There was always this concept of making and sharing and telling," said George Roberts, the Cottmans' longtime next-door neighbor in north Minneapolis and colleague at North High School. "A storyteller is more than an entertainer. A storyteller is a teacher who shows us the important moments in history."
Said Dawne Brown White, the executive director of COMPAS: "She really believed in the power of the arts. She saw something in every person."
Cottman died in her sleep March 11 while on a trip to Egypt with friends. Cottman was preceded in death by her husband, who passed away in 2021, and is survived by their daughter, Kenna, and two grandchildren. Memorial services will be held Friday, March 31, with a program beginning at 1 p.m. at Liberty Community Church's Northside Healing Space, 2100 Emerson Ave. N. in Minneapolis. Details and livestream will be posted at www.voiceofculture.org.
"Kids loved her — when you spend 30 years in a classroom, you know how to work an audience," said Danielle Daniel, a teaching artist at COMPAS and a friend. "She was like the Energizer Bunny, even at 80. I'd tease her: 'How you get so much energy?'"