‘My best friend died yesterday’: A tribute to Chris Cousins

Good morning from Augusta, where our hearts are broken.

Chris Cousins, who helped create Daily Brief, died Wednesday. From what we know, his heart gave out while he was helping a friend.

That was Chris.

He lived his life guided by that huge heart and a fierce devotion to the people he loved. And he loved an awful lot of people.

The outpouring of condolences and support has been overwhelming, heartwarming and — for the most part — nonpolitical. That’s quite a tribute to a man who spent the last six years of his life trying to make sense of one of the most contentious and toxic eras at the Maine State House.

People set aside political differences and agendas to remember Chris for what made him so special — an uncanny ability to connect with people on their terms. He went out of his way to talk to people about what mattered to them — even if it had nothing to do with politics or whatever he was covering — and to find positive attributes about others, even when they were going after him professionally.

“That guy just tried to tell me I am an [idiot], but I still kinda like him,” he once said to me.

That was Chris.

He didn’t need people to like him, but pretty much everyone did.

Chris didn’t love politics. But he did love meeting, getting to know and tell stories about the people that politics brought together in Maine.

People wanted to be around Chris. Frankly, it got to be a pain at times as we were trying to crank out a breaking story. Most days that the Legislature was in session would yield a parade. An uncompromising liberal would show up just as a rock-solid conservative was leaving, creating some interesting and potentially uncomfortable bipartisan summits at the back side of his swivel chair.

When the Legislature wasn’t in session, the parade continued. Only this time, the participants were folks like Gary the first-floor janitor who wanted to talk about deer season, legislative aides in search of a dose of human kindness — which Chris offered by the gallon — or other State House journalists who needed to vent or tap Chris’ institutional knowledge and common sense.

Chris made a point of befriending security guards, cafe cashiers, committee clerks and the other regular folks who do the quiet work to make the State House function. It helped him as a journalist — “because they know everything” he would say — but hanging with them was easy for him because they were his kind of people. No pretentiousness. No agenda.

That was Chris.

Tim Feeley, spokesman for the Maine attorney general’s office, captured that aspect of Chris perfectly in his remembrance.

“My last memory of him is that we both knew the best place to sit in the House Chamber on a hot day. We parked on the bench next to the air conditioner exchange during the last active day of the special session. He was funny and I always told him more than I should.”

The thing about Chris is that, if you told him more than you should have, he would only use that information if it served the public good or provided essential information to readers. He didn’t collect political pelts and brought true empathy to his work.

That empathy is why Chris Cousins was the first — and probably only — person who made me cry while editing a story. It was years ago, when we were working for The Times Record, and he wrote about a family whose infant daughter suffered from a rare disease that made her bones so brittle that they could not hug her. This was before Chris became a father and it was a heartbreakingly difficult story, but his ability to find words to respectfully, humanely and poignantly convey that family’s experience created a genuine human bond between his subject and readers.

Genuine and generous.

That was Chris.

At The Times Record, Chris often drew the task of writing “tribute obits” — remembrances of beloved community members who had just died. Chris would cry with them, then tell the stories of departed loved ones with heartfelt compassion. It was a daunting assignment because emotions were raw and these would often be the last words written about people who had strengthened communities, served humanity and changed lives.

Today, I realize just how daunting that is. But when an editor would go to him to write a tribute obit — even for someone like Ed Pert, a former Maine Senate secretary and House clerk whom he loved dearly — Chris would respond with the signature response that I heard often from him during our more than 15 years as colleagues: “I am not afraid.”

Not afraid to take on tough assignments. Not afraid to cry.

That was Chris.

If you’ve ever read a Daily Brief before, you know how easily and openly Chris shared his heart. You know that he unabashedly loved people and telling their stories. He was not afraid to write about how much he loved his wife, his sons and the life he so proudly and passionately shared with them.

Words can’t express the love that he so openly held for his family and community, which is why Chris often turned to music, another of his many passions. He instituted the Daily Brief soundtrack, which often drew more responses than anything we wrote. I’ll let you come up with your own soundtrack for him today. Here is mine, because I know he loved this song.

My best friend died yesterday.

That was Chris. — Robert Long

Editor’s note: Chris’ sister-in-law has set up a GoFundMe account to benefit his family. You can access it here.

Reading list

  • Maine’s high court ruled against a teen fighting his imprisonment, but it chided the state for lack of alternatives. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday affirmed the sentence of a 16-year-old from Skowhegan sent to Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland for property crimes. His lawyer argued that the 18-month sentence was longer than what an adult would get for those crimes. Chief Justice Leigh Saufley called it “a tragedy” that the court was left with two options — probation or incarceration — and that the justice system “can and must do better for Maine’s youth.”
  • A group wants to start an emergency family shelter in Bangor, which hasn’t had one for years. A local social services organization is seeking a zoning change to operate a two-family emergency shelter in a single-family home. One official called family homelessness “almost a hidden homelessness” because parents are resourceful about housing children and another said the group has been contacted by nearly 50 families seeking help since January.
  • Fisheries conservationists urged the state not to stock a well-known brook trout pond with a non-native species. State fisheries officials want to transfer a struggling population of Arctic charr from one pond and perhaps another to Henderson Pond in northern Piscataquis County, where a viable stock could be raised. To do it, the state would have to take it off the list of Maine’s pristine heritage fish waters, which haven’t been stocked for at least 25 years. One conservationist said the plan would simply “create another stocked water in the state of Maine.”

To Chris Cousins, ‘a man’

My tribute to Chris Cousins can only pale in comparison to the above. I only had about three years covering the State House with Chris. He was a mentor, but I was most affected by his humanity and love for his high school sweetheart, Jen, and his two boys.

On Tuesday, Chris asked Robert and I if it would be OK if he took the last three days of this week off to do carpentry work with a friend. He had just moved back to his hometown of South Paris and could use the money, he said. We would never say no, but he always asked.

I was walking into a meeting yesterday when Robert told me what happened. I did the meeting and tried to keep myself busy with work for the rest of the day. Wandering on back roads for a while, I made my way to Robert’s house. We talked about Chris, but mostly tried to distract ourselves from our void.

At night, I ended up at the house of another mutual friend. He asked me to read aloud an essay that Chris wrote in 2010. It’s about taking his then-5-year-old son to fish and look for moose in a remote part of Maine that he and his father often visited.

Chris’ father had died of cancer three years before that. Jen was pregnant with their second son then. Death is never fair, but this is just too cruel. He closed his piece like this.

“Daddy, I want you to show me all the things Grumpy showed you,” he said. “OK?”

As I drove through the deepening dusk, scanning the roadsides for moose and chatting with my own 5-year-old hero, a tear rolled down my face.

“Yes,” I said. “Of course, I will.”

“And the baby, too?” he asked.

“Yes, and the baby, too.”

After reading that through tears, I said, “He was so good.” I didn’t mean as a writer — though he was a great one. I meant as a father and person.

“He was a man,” our friend said.

It’s true, though that sounds reductive. Sure, Chris was a barrel-chested former football player who hunted and fished. You wouldn’t mess with him. But that didn’t make him a man. What did was loving the same woman for most of his life, cherishing his boys (often fretting that they were getting too old) and pursuing truth, be it emotional or political.

Thank you, Chris, for setting this example for your sons — most importantly — but also for your young partner at the State House. We’ll be following it forever. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com or rlong@bangordailynews.com.