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August 16, 2018

Farewell to a journalist with integrity and heart: Chris Cousins

Photo / Troy Bennett, Bangor Daily News
Photo / Troy Bennett, Bangor Daily News
Christopher Cousins, State House bureau chief for the Bangor Daily News, died Wednesday of a heart attack. He was 42 and leaves behind a wife and two sons, ages 13 and 8.

Maine lost an incredibly talented and dedicated journalist when Christopher Cousins died Wednesday morning of a heart attack. He was just 42 and leaves behind his beloved wife, Jen, and their two sons, ages 13 and 8.

My heart goes out to his family and I know hundreds, if not thousands, feel the same.

Chris had so much ahead of him, having just moved back to western Maine where he grew up. He was excited and making plans — he'd just been asking Robert Long, his dear friend and editor at the Bangor Daily News, advice on where would be the best place to plant perennial flowers at his new home. He had planned to take a few days off this week to do some of the work that needed to be done.

And with all of the work that goes with being the Bangor Daily News' State House bureau chief, and all of the work that goes with moving into a new house and making it a home, Chris somehow made time to be helping a friend with a carpentry project, which is what he was doing when he was felled by the fatal heart attack.

When Robert told me that last night, tears came to me … again, on a day filled with tears. I couldn't help thinking of the line from John Lennon's song "Beautiful Boy" — "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans" — though in both Lennon's case and Chris's, death came far too soon for all those other plans to unfold as they should have in lives that were cut short.

Robert told me he lost his best friend and his tribute in today's BDN bears witness to the depths of that friendship.

Like many of his colleagues throughout Maine, I could barely make it through the afternoon without breaking down in tears. Fact is, I didn't.

I could barely do my job after reading the BDN story about Chris' sudden death earlier that day. I skipped my mid-day assignment of writing social media Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn posts about that day's best stories from Mainebiz. There was not an ounce of cleverness in my brain, nothing that could persuade me that doing those posts was more important than reading the steady stream of tributes that began appearing on Twitter from people who worked with Chris, were covered by Chris, and, amazingly, all of them considering him to be a friend.

A 'big loss for Maine'

Here's a sampling of some of them, from fellow journalists:

  • Steve Mistler, Maine Public: "Maine's state house press corps is a tight-knit group. We fight the same fight for the same purpose. That's why we care so deeply for one another. @Storytiller made this bond easy. This is a gutting loss — for Chris's family, his coworkers, his readers, his friends and all of us:
  • Scott Thistle, Portland Press Herald: "Our hearts are broken. My friend, my brother."
  • Mary Pols: Portland Press Herald: "Awful news for #mepolitics and Maine's journalistic community. I remember reading about Chris landing a Neiman and thinking, who IS this guy. Reading him regularly when I moved back to Maine, it was clear: a really great journalist."
  • Michael Shepherd, Bangor Daily News: "I'm absolutely devastated at the loss of @Storytiller, a devoted father, husband, friend and my #mepolitics partner. He was one of the best people I've ever known. So many Mainers will miss him."

There are lots more, but from these you've got the gist.

I was particularly struck by the comments of those who expressed how generous Chris had been in sharing his hard-won wisdom with them about the intricacies of covering State House politics. Sure, there's competition among journalists. But there's also a higher purpose: The common good.

Chris never forgot that. It's what drove him to spend countless hours in the State House — time I'm absolutely sure he would have preferred to be spending with his wife and sons, or his many friends — waiting for the politicians to make their votes so he could write and file his stories about matters he knew were important to Mainers' lives.

There's no question he earned the respect of politicians from both sides of the aisle.

But don't take my word for it. Check out this article published in the Bangor Daily News that includes tributes from U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King; U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin; Senate President Michael Thibodeau; State House Speaker Sara Gideon; Former Gov. John Baldacci; Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, among others.

Republicans, Democrats, Independents. There's not a partisan word in their tributes. Their words come from their hearts and they all share, in that place of truth, the understanding that in this era of almost daily attacks against the press, Chris Cousins quietly went about his business, the people's business, and did it with integrity and a sincere effort to tell the truth.

BDN's 'Storytiller'

Photo / Troy Bennett, Bangor Daily News
Photo / Troy Bennett, Bangor Daily News
"All my pictures of Chris are lighthearted," BDN photographer Troy Bennett wrote in sharing this image of his friend.

There was nothing fake about Chris … ever. He had a smile that would light up a room, but he was tough as nails when it came to questioning politicians about the issues he knew were vitally important to BDN's readers and to all of us.

Here's one of the tributes that makes that point, from Biddeford State Sen. Susan Deschambault, Senate District 32: "During my short time as a senator I found Chris to be a diligent and fact-based reporter of news from under the dome of the State Capitol. He had an uncanny ability to report the story behind the story. He was knowledgeable, insightful and didn't miss a beat. He was a good human being and I will miss our conversations during late night session meetings. I don't recall any other reporter staying in the Senate to the very end."

Here's what I told Times Record reporter Nathan Strout, who reached out to me yesterday as the newspaper's former editor for a story he was writing about Chris. I was recalling sitting across from Chris who'd applied for a reporter's job at the Brunswick newspaper. It was almost 20 years ago, he'd been writing for the Norway Advertiser Democrat and was ready to move up in the world of journalism.

"I remember even then a kind of quiet confidence," I told Strout. "He had poise in his interview. I actually remember him at a certain point asking about The Times Record because I was in a rebuilding phase … and I suddenly realized I'm not just auditioning him, he's auditioning me. God love him, that was Chris Cousins. I think it was an indicator that this was a guy who wasn't afraid to ask a question to get at the truth of something."

What Chris wanted to know — and apparently he was satisfied with the answers I'd given him because he took the job as our Bath reporter — was whether The Times Record supported journalists who were unafraid and wanted to tell true stories, stories that mattered, stories that would take some time to develop.

Keep in mind he was in his young 20s. I could see this was a young man who would bring something to the staff I was trying to rebuild, someone who would elevate all of us with his passion for real journalism. He delivered on that promise.

I didn't fully realize it at the time, but with hindsight I now realize that's when Chris became one of my heroes. And I'm feeling pretty confident, all the rest of my team — many of them now working for the Bangor Daily News — feel the same way I do about Chris.

There's lots more I could write, but I'll close with what I think was the defining quality of Chris' journalism that set him apart and will ensure that his stories live on in the memories of those who were touched by his writing.

Chris Cousins: Standing by words

Chris wrote from his heart, but he also used his mind. He tended to be quiet. He was a great listener, and I could tell from the stories he delivered to my desk that people trusted him. They opened up to him, often about tragic events or difficult topics, because they knew he cared. He was on their side and he was going to do his best to tell their story so that others would understand something they needed to understand.

While he was at The Times Record, Chris was awarded a Nieman Fellowship in community journalism. It's one of the most coveted fellowships you can get in the world of journalism: A year at Harvard, a chance to hang out and learn from some of the best and brightest journalists around. When he asked for the support of the newspaper's publisher Douglas Niven and his two supervisors, myself and Robert Long, we didn't hesitate in saying "yes."

We knew it would be difficult to fill the hole his absence would create in our news coverage, and we had promised we'd keep his position open for him so he could return to it a year later if he got the fellowship. We all knew it was a longshot, but we were united in wanting to give Chris that chance to spread his wings and see where they might take him.

A couple of weeks after saying "yes" to his request, Chris asked me to read his application essay. He hooked me in the first paragraph, as he described how he worked with his Dad on weekends doing plumbing jobs …. and the understated message was that he did that, in part, to supplement his meager salary as a beat reporter for a small community daily.

But that wasn't the point of his essay: His point was that he was, by choice, a journalist, and by that he meant "storyteller." He knew already in his young life that stories are what teach us, hold us together, remind us of our common humanity.

After finishing his essay, I knew it wasn't a long shot. It was no surprise to those who knew him when he earned the fellowship.

If you want to get a hint of Chris' incredible gift of storytelling, check out this 2010 BDN essay, "Being a father, a hero." Make sure a Kleenex is nearby.

Today's editorial in the Bangor Daily News — written in response to President Trump's almost daily verbal attacks on journalists as the "enemy of the people" and "horrible, horrendous people" — wasn't necessarily intended to be a tribute to Chris Cousins. But, I think, in many ways it is.

It closes with these words: "Facts matter. But they don't make themselves known. They don't, actually, speak for themselves. They need people, such as journalists, or yourselves, to say them out loud."

We needed Chris Cousins, and now he's gone. Others, though, will continue the work. Those who knew Chris personally will remember his integrity, his dogged pursuit of truth, his generosity, his sense of humor, his love of family, his commitment to community, his talents as a writer, his stories.

I will remember Chris as the embodiment of the Chinese ideagram for "integrity," which shows a walking stick figure standing before the symbol for "words."

Standing by words: That was Chris Cousins.

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