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An Unbreakable Bond: Pills and Cottle

The love story of the two teaching legends, Rick Pillsbury and Grace Cottle

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Their names are so well-recognized in the Petaluma community that they hardly need introduction, but few know the long history between chemistry teacher Grace Cottle and physics, calculus, and Academic Decathalon teacher Rick Pillsbury. Legendary teachers, with 75 years of combined teaching experience and over 10,000 former students, Cottle and Pillsbury are truly the definition of a dynamic duo. The two are practically joined at the hip — and always have been.

“He’s almost like an extension of myself. We really haven’t been separated since our junior year of high school until now. I can’t imagine it any other way. You just want to continue to have your best friend with you, for the duration of time,” said Cottle.

Pillsbury agrees.

“We’re together so much, it’s almost like she’s a second part of me. I know what she’s going to say and I know every opinion that she’s got. It’s like we’re two halves of a whole; we’re just two peas in a pod,” said Pillsbury.

Childhood

Both from Manville, New Jersey, Cottle and Pillsbury met each other in the sixth grade. A crosstown change of schools had brought Pillsbury into Cottle’s class, which was much rowdier than the small school he came from. Pillsbury describes the jarring transition.

“I was stunned, because I came from this no-cursing and no-fighting school, and all of a sudden everybody is cursing and fighting in the lunchroom. But Grace was really bright and funny, and I had a crush on her in sixth grade. I don’t know if she knew who I was,” said Pillsbury.

Luckily for Pillsbury, an incident involving cookies made a memorable impression. He recounts what transpired one fateful day.

“It was during class, and some lesson was going on. She sat right behind me, and I had some cookies so I turned around and offered her one. The teacher took my whole desk and threw it in the hallway and told me to stay there until he came to get me. I was in there for an hour,” said Pillsbury.

Schooling

The pair continued on to their seventh through 12th grade high school, where they had classes together and slowly became acquainted. During their junior year they became much better friends, in part because they constantly began to hang out with the same group of people.

“In that time period, the Vietnam War was going on and there were many things to discuss. So in our sophomore and junior years, as a group, we would go to one person’s house and listen to music and talk,” said Cottle.

These conversations were instrumental not only in shaping who both Cottle and Pillsbury were, but how they viewed each other. Over the course of their junior year, they came to know each other extremely well. Cottle recalls the moment she realized something was different.

“Rick had been going with a couple of the guys in our group to different people’s houses and one day he came to my house solo. We were just good, close friends, but then he showed an interest more than any of the other
guys in the group. We knew each other inside out, so there was no real dating that happened. We just started seeing each other continuously, and we’ve been together ever since,” said Cottle.

Post-graduation, Pillsbury attended the University of Connecticut. Cottle remained in Manville, working odd jobs while she pondered a career path and saved up money. Despite the four hour trek between them, Pillsbury made weekend visits until Cottle was financially able to make the move.

“I worked at 7-11 when I came to Connecticut. I was given some responsibility there, like an assistant position. I learned the business end of that, but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do; I just didn’t have enough money to afford school on the East Coast. So after he graduated, we sold all our belongings and got a van,” said Cottle.

They intended to travel to the West Coast to visit Pillsbury’s brother — who was attending Sonoma State University at the time — and then loop back to Connecticut. But both were amazed by the beauty of California, and decided to stay longer than the two weeks they had planned. Cottle was happily surprised by the low cost of education at SSU: $70 a semester. She enrolled, and the pair bought a trailer from Pillsbury’s brother and began living in Sonoma Grove.

“The trailer was so small that every night, we had to pull out a piece of foam, and put it on the floor between the stove and the refrigerator and that’s where we slept. So when people say are you close — well, yes. Physically, mentally, emotionally, yeah, we’re close,” said Cottle.

Travel

After being inspired by one of her professor’s thrifty traveling ways, Cottle decided seeing the world was a must. She then discovered teaching was a career which allowed her to have summers off, giving her and Pillsbury the ability to have two whole months of freedom.

“As soon as I graduated from college, that was the first summer we took off for Europe. And since then, we have been going for full summer travels every year but one,” said Cottle.

Their globe-trotting excursions have brought them to the far corners of the earth, but they maintain a simple philosophy while among different cultures. Far from living a lavish lifestyle, Cottle and Pillsbury eat and lodge as the common person would.

“We used to stay in very cheap places. Like we could stay in Spain for five dollars a night, and we’d try it out. Sometimes it put us in some pretty crazy places. But it made it memorable, and it made it fun. We try to immerse ourselves into wherever we are: if we’re in a city, we try to live as people do in the city,” said Pillsbury.

Through their experiences abroad, Pillsbury has discovered a passion for art. Around the world, the rich diversity of craft and style has continued to fuel his fondness for the subject.

Camping in Switzerland

Camping in Switzerland

“I was just stunned by the beauty of art. So I started to have a few artists who became favorites, and then over the years we set our sights on some countries just for the museums and the art. I’ve grown to love it,” said Pillsbury.

The fine arts have greatly influenced their love of travel, but the pair have also been exposed to elements of culture far more significant. Cottle explains the tremendous impact that worldwide encounters have had on their life.

“That’s the wonderful part of it: you learn so much. We are still learning, and it’s the best learning when you travel. We haven’t really had any bad experiences at all,” said Cottle.

Perhaps the most touching aspect of Cottle and Pillsbury’s journeys have been the generosity and goodwill of the people they meet.

“People have invited us into their homes, and they don’t even do that in America. When we were in Morocco, people who were dirt poor invited us into their one room home and gave us dinner. It’s really amazing,” said Pillsbury.

Cottle in the Swiss Alps

Cottle in the Swiss Alps

After meeting an abundance of people while traveling, the two have become good friends with a couple in Switzerland who noticed they returned to the same camping ground every summer. Switzerland represents an important tradition for Cottle and Pillsbury — no matter where they travel, be it Kenya or Norway, they always spend a part of their summer enjoying the fresh air and exhilarating beauty of hiking the Swiss Alps.

“It’s a part of our rejuvenation. To teach again, you wear out. It takes a lot of energy, and you want to feel refreshed. Switzerland does that for us. It just feels like our battery is recharged,” said Pillsbury.

Teaching / Retirement

The couple may have been in the same chemistry class in high school, but neither could have guessed their professions would be so closely related — so close, in fact, that only a thin wall separates them every day. Their career paths, however, could not have been more different. Pillsbury knew early on that he wanted to educate.

“I knew I wanted to teach since the seventh or eighth grade. My mother was a teacher, and as a student I loved to explain math and science to other kids, so I knew that would be my job. I never had to think about what I wanted to do; all through college, I never really swayed from it,” said Pillsbury.

On the other hand, Cottle was firmly set on pursuing a more creative occupation.

“When I was a kid, I was very into dance. I would always say I wanted to be a choreographer, but no one ever knew what I was talking about — there wasn’t anything like So You Think You Can Dance back then on TV,” said Cottle.

When she realized that idea may not be quite feasible, she stopped taking dance lessons — though after enrolling at SSU, she reignited her love of dance. She initially sought a degree in psychology, but after taking some of the psychiatry courses needed, she realized that what she truly enjoyed was the chemistry.

“I was interested in brain chemistry, and I realized I had to take chemistry classes. I liked the chemistry so much I stuck with that. The classes were really small in any particular lab, and they had good equipment. I was working with the mass spectrometer and gas chromatograph in my freshman year. I was so excited about chemistry that I became a chemistry major, with a dance minor,” said Cottle.

Pillsbury and Cottle in their early teaching days

While living in Sonoma Grove, Cottle finished her schooling while Pillsbury scrounged up teaching jobs in Santa Rosa and Petaluma. Pillsbury always preferred the Petaluma schools, and eventually wound up at Casa Grande teaching a variety of subjects from PE to AP Biology — a different subject every year. Cottle took substitute jobs for a year, and was even relegated to teach physical science in a sewing room for one of her first substitutions. She took a chemistry opening at Petaluma High School, and went on to teach the AP course as well. However, the commuting situation was not ideal.

“We had to drive in separately to go to school, which was kind of silly. One summer in Zermatt, Switzerland, Rick called the school, because they gave us a heads up that there might be a job opening at Casa Grande. I found out that I was going to start teaching chemistry at Casa Grande while I was at the base of the Matterhorn. It’s a very special feeling for me; I remember that day very, very clearly,” said Cottle.

Now sharing the commute, courses, and even night time study sessions, Cottle and Pillsbury were merely yards apart on campus. But in time, even that distance would be greatly diminished.

“It was a thrilling moment when this room was available and I was able to move in next door. It’s been a perfectly natural feeling, but I think a lot of couples could go insane, being right there,” said Cottle.

Pillsbury has similar feelings.

“No, we don’t get sick of each other. This is very spaced out here — in the summer we’re in the same tent. This is like light years apart. We do well together,” said Pillsbury.

The grueling teacher workweek is a testament to the dedication of both Cottle and Pillsbury; they routinely arrive at 7AM and leave as late as 9PM, thanks to nightly study sessions in their adjoining rooms.

“During the school year, it’s about 98% school. Most of teaching I really enjoy, but I hate grading — that’s the worst part. It can take five hours to grade a test. I try to keep improving things. I’m never quite satisfied, and I always want to make things a little better for the next year,” said Pillsbury.

In an age where technology is slowly being integrated into school curriculum, more traditional teaching methods have proven tried and true for Cottle and Pillsbury. Past students often return, thanking them for their help in surviving the initial years of college level courses. Pillsbury explains his approach to teaching.

“I could show them more videos, and that would be fun, but are they going to know as much physics going into college? I’m always thinking. I try to prepare them to take physics in college and to do well, to be successful in the engineering field, not to entertain,” said Pillsbury.

Pillsbury and Cottle, today

The couple goes beyond the basic level of understanding, in part because their day to day lives mirror each other in every way — from stresses and struggles to student breakthroughs.

“You can be together with someone, but because we share the same job, we can empathize, and really relate and feel for each other,” said Cottle.

But after years of demanding hours and obligations, the team is ready to retire. Their desire to retire is fueled by the opportunity to travel to places more conveniently.

“We’ve never been to Australia or New Zealand, and we want to go in our winter which is their summer. We want to go to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, but not during their monsoon season. It’s time for us to branch out a little and that’s what we are going to do. We still have so much of the world to see, which is why we are retiring while we can,” said Cottle.

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An Unbreakable Bond: Pills and Cottle