AUBURN — It’s Sunday morning. Connie Cote, known as “Mother Cote” by her many admirers, adjusts her headset.
“We’re on in 20 seconds,” says Big Z radio engineer Chris Hodgkin.
On cue, Cote tells her listeners at 105.5 FM/1240 AM in French what song she’s playing next and a bit about the music.
She’s delivered her radio show, “La Revue Francaise,” for 60 years, every Sunday. She did her show even when she was in the Maine Legislature and involved in so many causes and committees that it would make a normal person dizzy.
“I’ve always done the show live,” Cote said between songs. “I’ve had very few recordings. The show must go on, no matter what.”
She started her radio show at age 30, she said. Cote’s about to turn 90, a milestone that will be celebrated at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Dolard & Priscilla Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston. The public is invited.
Cote started her radio show to keep the French language alive, she said. “I do believe that is why I am still doing the program. I’m enjoying it more than ever.”
Cote doesn’t look — or act — her age. She drives herself to the radio station every week. Her son, Bill Cote, drives her in the winter.
As she nears 90, she’s had some hearing loss. Sometimes her feet ache. But overall “my health is great,” Cote said. “I’m very blessed. The secret is keeping busy. And I eat a lot of ice cream. My son Billy tells me, ‘Don’t tell people that; it’s not good for you.’ I say, ‘It works for me.’”
Cote has no plan to retire, a question worried listeners ask frequently. “People keep saying, ‘You’re going to stay, aren’t you?’”
Her listeners tell her they don’t miss a show. They go to Mass on Saturday night so they can listen to her Sunday morning program. The show airs from 9-11 a.m.
She plays all kinds of French music, classics including Edith Piaf (“La Vie En Rose”) and Jacques Dutronc (“Il Est Cinq Heures, Paris S’eveille”). She plays popular songs, French Broadway songs, country, folk, Acadia. There’s something for everyone, she said.
Between songs, she announces advertisements. On Nov. 5 she did ads from local politicians seeking office. Patrons give her the ads in English; she translates them into French. She takes requests for birthdays and other special occasions, such as wedding anniversaries.
“She plays one record after another,” said Rita Dube, former executive director of the Franco Center. “My grandmother used to listen to her. My mother, my aunts, my whole family, anyone who was Franco-American listened. Today she has a good following,” Dube said, calling her “a local legend. She speaks beautiful French.”
Cote credits her upbringing for her love of the language. She comes from a musical family, and her parents were born in Lewiston. “My mother spoke to me in French. My mother spoke French beautifully. That’s why I did not forget.”
Those who stop speaking the language forget it, she said.
She’s lived through times when many shunned the French. In the late ’50s, “I remember I’d go shopping on Lisbon Street,” and people would recognize her as the lady on the radio.
Young people turned away, she said, annoyed because their parents listened to her show every Sunday, which meant they couldn’t listen to their shows.
“But today, this generation is listening now,” Cote said. “The revival of the French language has come out since the Franco-American Festival which I started in 1978. That was the beginning. It’s a good feeling. An accomplishment. I didn’t do it alone. So many people have contributed to the revival.”
She was at the Franco Center recently when someone passed out flyers announcing her Nov. 19 birthday celebration. She was stunned, felt awkward and undeserving, she said.
She now has accepted it and welcomes the celebration. “It’s great,” Cote said. “My daughter’s coming from New York. I’m looking forward to it.”
It’s a chance for Francos to thank her for keeping French language and music on the air, Sunday after Sunday, Dube said.
She’s been told her show brings much joy, especially to the older Francos who listen to her show in their homes or at nursing homes.
Knowing it makes people happy is a good feeling, Cote said. “It’s rewarding.”
Happy birthday, Connie!
What: Public invited to celebrate 90th birthday of Connie Cote
When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19
Where: Gendron Franco Center, Lewiston, followed by special presentation of “The Home Road,” a documentary film
Connie Cote sits behind the microphone in the Gleason Media studio on Center Street in Auburn on Sunday, Oct. 5. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)