A Lesson in Perseverance:  Casey Cota ’89

Casey Cota ‘89 P’14, ’17, ’18 is no stranger to hard work. His company, Vermont’s Cota and Cota Heating Fuels, is well known for their impeccable service, which he says is “like companies in the 1950s, when service mattered and everyone knew you.” As president of the company, Cota is the third in his family to run the business, and still thinks back on leadership lessons he learned from his grandfather, who treated employees like family.
This community mindset has served Cota well, as he’s been able to quickly get his employees on board with maintaining the company’s incredible level of service. Everyone at Cota and Cota Heating Fuels handles issues immediately as they come in. “Everything is done today, because tomorrow is only going to get busier,” he says. “When you deal with something immediately, then it’s behind you and you’re only dealing with the future, instead of the past. It’s been a good methodology for us.”

This hard work and sense of the importance of community is part of his genetic make up, but it’s also something that is deeply ingrained in him from his time at Vermont Academy. Looking back on his years at VA, Cota says, “it was 
one of the more transformative times in my life. Academically, I had a heavier course load in high school than in college, but it was also a time when I wondered what my identity was.” That identity would be shaped by his experiences with several major sports injuries, challenges that Cota overcame with hard work, perseverance, and a forward-looking mindset.

As a football player, Cota suffered two fractured femurs during the fall of his freshman year. After recovering from those injuries, he returned to playing basketball, but in the winter of his sophomore year, he broke his tibia and patella and dislocated the knee joint. The doctors told him he may never run again. “I was 15, and sports were my whole identity. It was probably the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to me personally,” he says. “But it was also one of the best things that happened to me.”

The injury, Cota says, taught him perseverance. After recovery, setbacks, surgery, and more recovery, he learned not only how to work hard to overcome an obstacle, but how to shift his mindset. “It was so long and hard, and difficult for my adolescent mind to process,” he says, “and I had to learn how to overcome my fear of it happening again. I had to learn to give up my illusion of control and accept that it would happen again or not, and I couldn’t control that.”

Luckily, he didn’t have to do it alone. “My English teacher, Don Tinney, was also an athletic trainer, and he became a great listener and a great mentor to me,” Cota says. “He was able to pump my tires when I thought they were flat, and let me know that I was heading in the right direction.” Tinney helped Cota adopt a life mantra that he still holds today: never give up. “No matter what other people say, you don’t quit until you say you quit. You don’t lose until you say you’ve lost.”

That tenacity served him well academically at VA, as well. “I was the sort of student who needed a lot of time for studying, so I would study for three or four hours every night,” Cota says. “And if I didn’t, I would wake up in the middle of the night because I hadn’t finished something. I’d be up late at night finishing the work, and I’m still that way today. If it’s got to get done, I’m going to stay and get it done.”

After graduating from VA, Cota attended Ithaca College, and then, with his brother Sean, he purchased Cota and Cota Heating Fuels from his father in 1995. In 2011, he bought out Sean’s half of the business, and the company has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 25 years, something he attributes to VA and how he learned to overcome challenges here.

And, to give back for those valuable lessons, Cota is still deeply involved with the school. He’s coached basketball, sat on the board of trustees, and, of course, watched his three children graduate from VA. Coming back on campus, he says, “is just like you felt as a kid, going to your grandparents’ house: it’s that feeling of comfort, of familiarity. There’s just something about campus that gives me a feeling of peace, that reminds me of a time when life made sense.”