Steve Cousins, Miami Hero of Science, Dies

Steve Cousins (left) and Bill Nye the Science Guy
Steve Cousins (left) and Bill Nye the Science Guy
Courtesy of Mary Cousins
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Steve Cousins' students saw him die.

For months, while the handsome, 54-year old giant of a man defied the cancer that would kill him, he trudged from classroom to classroom at Miami's Cushman School. In his upstate New York accent, he described the agonizing chemotherapy, exhaustion, and withering.

An always-smiling six-foot-five science teacher, he explained how it began in the pancreas and spread to the liver. But that really wasn't the lesson. Those kids were learning about daily life with death — being valiant, caring, and loving both your family and your profession.

Though doctors gave Steve scant weeks to live, and some days he struggled to get out of bed, he made sure the kids got their lessons. Indeed, in the last year of his life, when he lost 100 pounds and most others would have surrendered to the inevitable, Steve Cousins helped start a high school.

“You know, it can get a bit boring teaching the same thing every year,” he told me a few months ago. “This freshens everything up.”

In November, just six months before he died on May 5, every student in the school dressed in purple, the official color of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day, to honor him — well, almost all of them. It's high school, after all, so a few overslept. “But everyone who forgot," Steve recalled, "came up and apologized.”

He was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Brockport, New York, a small hamlet near Rochester. Second in a family of four kids, he graduated from the State University of New York College at Brockport — just like his wife, Mary, a nurse who mends premature babies' hearts at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He did AIDS research up North before moving in 2000 to Miami, where he began working with the legendary Margaret Fischl, who transformed the field with her work on the prevalence of the disease among Haitians and the use of AZT in keeping it at bay.

That wasn't good enough for Steve, my friend and neighbor. “He really felt like he could make a difference to middle schoolers,” Mary says. “At that age, they are so malleable. He could communicate his excitement about science.”

Steve was the kind of science teacher who idolized Bill Nye the Science Guy. A colleague, Steve Schraer, also remembers Cousins as a huge Rush fan. When teaching his students about forests, he'd play the band's song “Trees.”

Steve Cousins with daughters Tessa and Lauren a few years ago. They love animals.
Steve Cousins with daughters Tessa and Lauren a few years ago. They love animals.
Courtesy of the Cousins family

“That got the kids excited about what they were studying,” Schraer recalls, “or at least it got Steve and me excited.”

Long ago, I used to run into Steve every year at the county science fair. Almost everybody else would carry one student's project at a time. Steve would deliver 30 in those huge arms. “Just doing my job,” he'd say.

Steve's big heart — as well as those of his beautiful daughters Tessa and Lauren — attracted a zoo. Their small living and dining rooms in Miami Shores included not only a couple of dogs but also a ferret, an African bullfrog, turtles, a hamster, a guinea pig, several birds, a sugar glider (a tiny gliding possum not unlike Rocky the Flying Squirrel), goldfish that lived to be ten inches long, and Fluffy the hedgehog.

“Everybody gave us animals,” Mary recalls.

Steve also loved volleyball and skiing. He was famous among friends and students for ignoring cold weather, even snow when he was up North, and wandering around in a T-shirt and shorts no matter the temperature. "I'm from Buffalo," he'd say. And he'd tote Sabres and Bills paraphernalia to school every year. 

In 2016, Steve began planning a science curriculum for Cushman's new high school. It was hard work, particularly with his Stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

Caroline Lewis, the high-school director, says Steve didn't let the illness hold him back, even though it's generally lethal in two to six months.

“When the chemo was working, he called himself an outlier,” Lewis recalls. “He loved making science come alive for the students. Science and the search for truth have lost a hero.”

A memorial service is planned for Steve Cousins today at 4 p.m. at St. Rose of Lima Church (415 NE 105th St., Miami Shores), where he also taught for four years. A celebration of his life will follow at the Cushman School (92 NE 60th St., Miami).

A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help pay for his children's college education.

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