LEBANON, N.H. — Former Sen. Norris Cotton, who earned a reputation as a laconic, fiercely independent and conscientious Yankee statesman in three decades in Congress, has died of pneumonia at age 88.
Cotton, who called himself a "rock-ribbed conservative and proud of it," died Friday at his home, said a spokeswoman for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover.
"He embodied the substance and character of the state and people he served for so many years," said Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.). "The death of Norris Cotton marks the passage of a great New Hampshire statesman and the end of an era."
Gov. Judd Gregg ordered state flags lowered to half-staff in memory of Cotton, who he said "represented the best of Yankee statesmanship."
Former President Richard M. Nixon called Cotton "one of my closest friends in Washington" in a statement issued from his home in Saddle Brook, N.J. Cotton and Nixon became friends when both were sworn in as freshman representatives in 1946.
Cotton, a Republican, went to the Senate in 1954 after winning an election to fill the two remaining years of the late Sen. Charles Tobey's term. On Aug. 4, 1974, the day Nixon resigned the presidency, Cotton was among those the President phoned to say goodby.
"It was the saddest day of my life," Cotton recalled. But he said he was relieved Nixon had quit and saved him the agony of judging his friend in a Senate impeachment. Cotton's first vote as a senator had been a vote to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Cotton retired from the Senate in 1974, but returned for about six weeks the following year while voters settled a disputed election.
The Warren native came from a poor family, and paid for his education at Phillips Exeter Academy, Connecticut's Wesleyan University and George Washington University Law School by waiting on tables, washing dishes and working as a bellhop in the summer.
Cotton began his political career at age 22 when he was elected to the state House of Representatives. He later served as a prosecutor, judge and Speaker of the New Hampshire House.
Cotton's political headquarters was the Lebanon firehouse, which he called his "club." There, he would play cribbage and chat with a steady stream of farmers, businessmen, workers and bankers.
Cotton's first wife, Ruth, died at age 85 in 1978 after 51 years of marriage. They had no children. In 1980, Cotton married Eleanor Coolidge Brown, his longtime housekeeper, who survives him.