Bill Cousins Honored with Appointment to Tobacco Advisory Council in Tallahassee
September 14, 2015

It started in 2004 in Pennsylvania with a Clean Indoor Air Act article and meeting announcement in the Valley Independent newspaper. Bill Cousins thought that sounded interesting, since air quality was a concern of his with 6 steel mills in the area near his home. He had no idea the meeting was being chaired by two women, Vickie Oles and Anne Lail, associated with the Westmoreland (Co.) Tobacco Free Coalition. 

After the meeting, Bill went up to the women to introduce himself and briefly shared his son’s story. Paul had died just over a month prior from oral cancer that his doctors attributed to his 12 years of smoking. Vickie and Ann were immediately taken by Paul’s story. Bill also revealed that he officiated baseball and soccer games for local school sports leagues; the women saw a unique opportunity.

Bill Cousins
Bill Cousins (far right) meeting Congressman Ted Yoho in 2013

Using his relationship with local schools, Bill was asked to present Paul’s story to local youth as a way to discourage tobacco use. Paul was only 29 when he passed, leaving behind a baby girl and wife. He had been an athlete and very active in his community and died after a grueling, almost three year battle. Bill was willing to take this on and even used personal photos of his son lying in his hospital bed after undergoing many surgeries to combat the aggressive squamous cell cancer, to help underscore his message. 

At his first school presentation, only 6 students showed up. Bill wasn’t sure this was going to work out. He told Vickie and Anne about the low turnout and they provided him with some displays and handouts. Bill told the principal of the next school prior to his arrival that he hoped more than 6 students would be there. When Bill entered the auditorium, there were 500 students waiting to hear him speak for the morning session, and another 500 came to an afternoon session. He didn’t have any problems packing a room after that. Bill was even asked to present at the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association banquet about the dangers of athletes using tobacco.

Once Bill had learned about tobacco control initiatives happening in his community, he knew that he had to be part of the solution. He wanted to make a difference and use his son’s story as a cautionary tale for youth.  “I get joy out of reaching children and having them say they don’t want to end up like my son,” he shared. “They look at me sheepishly and I know what they’re thinking. I tell them it’s okay—that’s the point of my presentation. My intent isn’t to scare people, but to help them.” Oftentimes after a presentation, students will come up to Bill privately and hand him a pack of cigarettes or a can of dip and tell him they’re done.

Bill’s presentation has evolved over the years, with new tobacco facts and figures and displays, and he even added wearing a feeding tube during his presentation, similar to one that Paul had to use, to demonstrate how having cancer can drastically and permanently change a person’s life. But he always ends his Power Point with the pictures of Paul in the hospital bed. Bill interweaves these pictures with photos of young people or famous athletes who have struggled with cancers from tobacco use: Sean Marsee, Bill Tuttle, Gruen Von Behrens. Then at the very end, he shows a picture of his son’s tombstone. Any chatter or giggling that may have been going on always stops at this point, once the students see the tombstone and then notice that the last name is the same as Bill’s. The questions, and sometimes the tears, start to come. “Did you know this person?” “Was that your son?” And the inevitable, “How can you do this without crying?” Bill informs them that he is crying on the inside but needs to share this story so they don’t fall into the same trap. Sometimes a question will throw him off-guard and he’ll start to tear up. Bill will never forget the little girl in the front row of one of his first presentations who told a teary-eyed Bill, “It’s alright to cry, mister, no one will laugh.”

Bill has collected thousands of thank you cards and personal letters from students, parents, and faculty over the years. He has kept every one. He looks at them sometimes when he is feeling down and ready to give up his anti-tobacco presentations. “It’s been an adventure; a good one,” Bill said. He said it’s kept him from dwelling on Paul’s death although he thinks about him every day. He knows this is what Paul would have wanted him to do.

Bill retired in 2006 and he and his wife decided to move to Ocala, Florida to be closer to Paul’s wife Pam and their granddaughter Paris. Before they moved away, Vickie and Anne procured a grant to hire a videographer and they taped one of Bill’s presentations to edit into a DVD to be used by local schools after Bill left. These videos are still being used to this day. Even so, Bill makes a trip to Pennsylvania every year during Red Ribbon Week, on his own dime, to talk to any schools that invite him to share Paul’s story. This year he has 5 schools lined up.

Once Bill came to Ocala, he was looking to start telling his story locally. He found the Community Council Against Substance Abuse (CCASA) and the CCASA Chair at the time, Dan Geer, helped him get into a few schools to start. Then the Marion County Health Department and Tobacco Free Partnership of Marion County (TFP) started helping him network to find venues and provided him with more displays and materials. He was on his way.

Bill eventually became a member of the Tobacco Free Partnership’s Advisory Council and represents the local American Cancer Society. At the end of July this year, he received the call that he had been nominated for and appointed to the Tobacco Advisory Council (TAC) in Tallahassee. The TAC is the group that oversees the activities of the Bureau of Tobacco Free Florida which administers the tobacco settlement funding that Governor Lawton Chiles negotiated from top tobacco companies back in 1997. This is an extreme honor and is reflective of the dedication Bill has for his work in the community.

After attending his first TAC meeting in August, Bill said that the TAC is basically “doing what we’re doing here with the TFP, just on a bigger scale covering the whole state.” He said that he was the only person in the room without letters behind his name. Fortunately, this kind of thing doesn’t faze Bill and he is up to this newest challenge. When asked how he feels about his work in the community, Bill said “We are making a difference in fighting Big Tobacco, but it won’t happen overnight. They have more money than we do, but we will keep fighting until it’s done.”  

Any money that gets donated for Bill’s programs he puts into a scholarship fund for his granddaughter Paris. He does not do any presentations for money; he does them to share Paul’s story.

And our community is all the richer for it.