If the lines trophies from various regional and national tournaments that fill the top of Louis Cotton’s largest bookcase are not a clear enough indicator of his love of racquetball, than court he built himself in the middle of his home certainly is.
Even at age 87, Cotton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is still a formidable opponent.
When he hits the ball, Cotton seems to instinctively slide into place for the subsequent volley, as he already knows exactly where his opponent will put the ball next. That’s if the person his playing can return his shot at all.
“I still have a hard time beating him,” said Ron Moss, who has been playing racquetball with Cotton for 34 years.
But then, it’s hard to beat him at most anything. Going for the gold ring is just how he is.
“That’s the way I am, because that is the way the Lord made me,” Cotton said.
His upbringing also had something to do with it.
Cotton’s mother raised him in Olean, New York. Cotton’s father, Louis H. Cotton Sr. was also a military man. Also a lieutenant colonel, the elder Cotton’s career often kept him away from home. However, the distance and the lack of knowledge about his father did not dampen Cotton’s admiration.
“My father was the greatest of the Great Generation,” Cotton said.
During his senior year of high school, Cotton and his mother were able to stay with his father while he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. It was there that the seed of own military career was planted.
During his stay, Cotton met some other military men, who told him that if he wanted a good education that he should go to school in Florida.
“So I finished high school, scraped up all the money I had, bought a motorcycle and went from Olean, New York, all the way south to Gainsville, Florida,” Cotton said.
While in Florida, Cotton met the woman who would become his first wife.
However, this was at a time where the college had only recently become co-ed and rules of fraternization were strict. One night, the couple stayed out too late. They were suspended for a semester.
“So I got mad and joined the Air Force,” Cotton said.
Cotton’s father had been of the first men to take airborne training to be a paratrooper in World War II. Cotton Senior was also a highly decorated solider with about 19 medals, including eight Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart for when he was wounded during D-Day.
“And I said I’ll do that, too,” Cotton said.
Cotton found his way to parachute school. For the most part, he said the schooling was easy.
“But then you have to make jumps — five of them,” Cotton said.
He made four of them. But during his final one, he had an enlightened movement.
As he stood at the open door of a plane going 350 mph, he a change of heart.
“And I said, ‘That doesn’t look like fun anymore,’” Cotton said.
Then he looked to the front of the plane and saw the pilots sitting there in T-shirts and khaki pants.
“And I said, ‘I’m in the wrong end of the airplane,’” Cotton said.
Cotton soon found himself in flight school and flying the plane better than any of his instructors. As a result, he graduated as the No.1 student out of a class of 200.
Cotton’s career with the Air Force would take him across the globe several times.
“It would take me two days to tell you all the stories there,” Cotton said.
Retirement and racquetball
When Cotton felt retirement calling in 1974, the globe trekker knew where he wanted to permanently hang his hat. He had enjoyed his time stationed at Scott Air Force Base and wanted to make Southern Illinois his home, so he put an ad in the paper.
Cotton wanted a 40-acre plot of hilly and wooded countryside, with a creak and pond, in a good location and at a price he could afford.
“And I couldn’t find it,” Cotton said.
Then one day, an ad in the Highland News Leader answered his prayers.
“And in that ad it said: ‘For sale, 34 acres, hilly and wooded, creek and a pond, and reasonable price.’ And I said, “Good Lord, thank you. How much is it?” Cotton said.
Cotton was able to buy his dream property for $12,000.
For a time, Cotton lived in the old house that stood on the property, which is located in Old Ripley, in Bond County.
However, shortly after his purchase, the structure, which was built in the 1800s burnt down. Cotton decided to rebuild. But, simply building a cookie-cutter house would not suit his style.
Like everything in his life, he took what he was given and turned it into something beautiful. Cotton honed his amateur electrician and carpentry skills to build his home completely out of salvaged material.
He paid attention to the newspaper to look for nearby demolitions, where he found boards, planks, windows -- basically all the material he needed -- to raise the house. He even ended up with a set of lead, stained-glass windows from an old church and beams from a hospital that was torn down at Scott Air Force Base.
Looking at the outside, an onlooker would not be able to tell that a man with no carpentry experience built the home.
Cotton even engineered his own solar heating system. The invention utilizes large windows to trap the heat of the sun during winter months and fans bring the hot air down into the house.
But Cotton’s crown jewel is his racquetball court.
Cotton estimated that he started playing the game when he first entered the Air Force. He fell in love right away.
“I just decided this is my sport, and this is what I’ll do,” Cotton said.
Cotton still tries to play at home on a weekly basis, and while you watch him play, it seems as age may never catch up with him. And he continues to approach life just like he approaches the game -- with a tried and true plan.
“I eat right. I exercise, and I don’t do anything the Lord don’t want me to do,” he said.