29-year-old's death a driving force behind anti-smoking crusade
Bill Cousins likes to point out to middle-schoolers that his son was their age when he started smoking.
By age 29, he was dead.
“I caught him with cigarettes in his backpack when he came home from school one day,” Cousins said. “I asked him whose they were, and he said they were his friend's. I took them over to the garbage can and threw them away. I had a sneaking suspicion they were his.”
Paul Cousins continued smoking into adulthood, until 2002 when he found out that he had squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer.
“When they told him he had cancer, he quit,” Cousins said.
By then, it was too late. Paul Cousins died in 2004 after the cancer had spread to his jaw, eyes and ears, his father said.
“They removed part of his jaw and took part of his breast bone to form a new jaw,” Cousins said. “He ended up on a feeding tube.”
It is that personal approach that makes Cousins' anti-smoking message so effective, said Donna Kean, executive director of the Saint Vincent College Prevention Projects.
“It brings it home for them. It's a powerful story,” Kean said. “Bill is very passionate to let people know that the use of tobacco can be deadly.”
Kean spent last week accompanying Cousins to schools all over Westmoreland County for a series of talks that he gives every year on “The Dangers of Tobacco.”
Cousins, 73, of Ocala, Fla., formerly of Monessen, developed the program in the months after his son's death, partly as a way to deal with his grief and partly to warn young people of the dangers of smoking.
“He died on Jan. 16. By March, I had it together and was in some school with only six students in it,” he said.
Cousins' first big presentation was at Charleroi Area High School, where he spoke to nearly 1,000 students at morning and afternoon assemblies.
Although he got early support from the Monessen Tobacco Free Coalition, and continues to enjoy the support of Saint Vincent College and Penn State Extension, he flies back to Westmoreland County every year at his own expense to speak to middle school and high school students.
Kean helped line up this year's itinerary, which included visits to Queen of Angels Catholic School in North Huntingdon, Adelphoi Academy at Hartford Heights, Uniontown Area Senior High School in Fayette County, Greensburg Salem Middle School, Yough Intermediate Middle School and Verna Montessori School in Mt. Pleasant.
Cousins' 45-minute message is the same wherever he goes: What happened to his son could happen to any smoker in his audience.
“It definitely puts a personal light on the dangers of tobacco,” Kean said.
Paul Cousins grew up in Monongahela, Washington County, and attended Ringgold High School, where he played soccer and was a catcher on the baseball team. After graduation in 1992, he studied hotel-motel management and moved to Florida.
Paul Cousins' battle with cancer started with the discovery of a sore on his tongue. A long-haul truck driver at the time, he drove to California and called home to say he was having trouble swallowing, his father said.
Back in Florida, he went to seen an oncologist, and a biopsy confirmed the cancer diagnosis. Despite a surgery to remove part of his tongue, the cancer spread, Cousins said. He endured two more surgeries, as well as chemotherapy and radiation.
“He exhausted all the medical possibilities,” Cousins said. “The main culprit was the tobacco. … The cancer he got mostly (afflicts) people my age, not young men.”
Paul Cousins left behind a wife and daughter. After Bill Cousins retired in 2006, he and his wife, Fran, moved to Florida to be close to them. He gives his anti-smoking presentations mostly in Florida and Pennsylvania.
At the Somerset Career & Technical Center three years ago, a student pulled him aside after an assembly, took an unopened snuff can out of his pocket and gave it to him.
“He said, ‘I don't want to end up like your son,'” Cousins said. “I know it affected that young fellow.”
On Tuesday, Westmoreland County commissioners issued a proclamation in support of Cousins.
“Bill always has a powerful story to tell and strives to reach others,” the proclamation said. “Bill expects nothing in return, other than to share his late son's story to deter youth from using tobacco products.”