Dexter Loses an Icon: Paul Cousins 1938-2022
If you live in Dexter and never met Paul Cousins, you’re still well acquainted with him because he has had a hand in just about everything that makes Dexter what it is today.
Paul passed away on December 9, 2022. And while those who knew him mourn his passing, we are grateful that he chose Dexter as his home.
“Paul was a tremendous man and a tremendous contribution to our community,” says Mayor Shawn Keough. “Paul was extremely proud to call Dexter home. He was a champion and supporter of many things, including the Dexter school system, the environment, and the benefits of a healthy environment on people and a community.”
Paul was a biology teacher, drama director, softball coach, environmentalist, restaurateur, founding member of Dexter Rotary and Community Wellness Coalition, and started the Arts & Heritage Commission. In addition to Dexter councils, committees, and commissions, he was a board member for Huron River Watershed Council, Destination Ann Arbor, Washtenaw Area Value Express, and the Chamber of Commerce.
And that is a short list of positions he held but doesn’t begin to describe his involvement which earned him the nickname “Mr. Dexter.”
Paul and his late wife, Pat, immersed themselves in the community right from the start. The Cousins came to Dexter in 1963 when 25-year-old Paul landed a job teaching high school biology, which he did inside the classroom for ten years and then another ten years outside in the school’s outdoor lab for environmental studies. From the beginning, Paul and Pat had what he described as “a love affair with the community.”
Browsing through the editions of the Dexter Leader from 1963, Paul is regularly mentioned, sometimes multiple times, showing just how engaged he was with the community. At the high school’s April 1964 Penny Carnival, students and adults took aim at the dunk tank to put the new biology teacher in the cold spring water. The carnival raised funds that year to buy new footlights for the stage.
When the teachers’ contract was ending the following year in 1965, the new biology teacher was the Dexter Education Association President, a position he held until he retired from teaching in 1983. As president, Paul negotiated the contracts, often to the consternation of the school administration. The late Al Ritt had to sit across the bargaining table from Paul. Years later, Al recounted those times, saying, “That guy just would not budge.” And laughing, he added, “I guess he was the right man for the job.” The two were good friends.
Paul loved the theater. In his early Dexter days, there are newspaper accounts of him playing a role here and there on stage. The May 6, 1965, Dexter Leader reports, “James Phelps will be in the pit directing the rousing accompaniment to the hit musical, ‘Check Your Worries,’ when the music department presents the show. Paul Cousins is directing the dramatics.”
Paul’s first love after Pat was conservation. By the mid-1970s, he had gone from teaching biology indoors to teaching conservation outdoors in the high school’s ecology lab. In spring 1975, the newspaper tells us Paul organized another roadside cleanup for the area. He opened up the school’s nature center on Mother’s Day that year and invited everyone to "take a mother to the wildflower nature walk.’’
Paul was recognized in 1976 as an Outstanding Environmentalist by the Washtenaw County Soil Conservation District. In accepting the award, Paul thanked the District but emphasized that “the real recipients should be the residents of the Dexter School District.”
Paul retired from teaching in 1983. The following year he and Pat opened Cousins’ Heritage Inn, where The Fillmore is today.
“Pat and I always liked good food, and with her culinary experience at the hospital, we decided to open a restaurant on Main Street,” Paul said in a recent interview. “A number of people in the community didn’t think we had a prayer, but we survived and ran it quite successfully for 18 years.”
A major turning point for Dexter was the March 1991 election when an $800,000 Bond was on the ballot to improve downtown. Dexter was not thriving then as it is now. Storefronts sat empty. Above the stores, windows were boarded up. The streetscape was unappealing and not pedestrian friendly. The village’s infrastructure was aged out. Paul once told the story of how a water main broke on the corner of Main and Broad, sending water high into the air. The village had to scramble to find money to fix it. Paul ran with others on the platform of revitalizing downtown. They were elected. The bond passed, and Dexter has steadily improved since then.
A big part of Dexter’s downtown appeal is Mill Creek Park. Not too long ago, the park was Mill Creek Pond, 20 acres of stagnated water in downtown Dexter. In the mid-1990s, the crumbling bridge on Main St needed replacing. The bridge was attached to the dam underneath, which created the large pond. The cost skyrocketed as a result. According to the January 23, 1997 Leader, “Dexter Village Council Trustee Paul Cousins recently recommended the village encourage state and federal representatives to support the removal of the Mill Pond Dam.”
The article also stated, “The Watershed Council is interested in reconnecting Mill Creek to the Huron River through the dam’s removal, Cousins said. He further stated the dam is targeted for removal in the state’s 1998 budget, but a little encouragement from the village wouldn’t hurt.”
Paul was the Huron River Watershed Council’s longest-standing board member, serving since 1968. The HRWC credits Paul’s vision and leadership as spearheading the removal of Dexter’s Mill Pond Dam in 2008. Removing the unsightly village pond that was not viable for aquatic life restored more than 200 miles of free-flowing stream habitat for brown trout, beavers, muskrats, herons, and other wildlife. The pond area has since been rejuvenated into Dexter’s popular Mill Creek Park, a focal point for local trails. The HRWC awarded Paul its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020.
While working on the dam removal, Paul was part of another historic effort—saving Gordon Hall, Dexter founder Judge Samuel Dexter’s homestead. The University of Michigan owned it and had split the mansion into apartments for staff. As the Millenium turned, UofM didn’t need the property any longer and was looking to sell. Paul was part of the group that raised $1.5 million to purchase the historical site in 2006, saving it from developers.
“He was super passionate about preserving Gordon Hall,” notes Mayor Keough. “He and others formed a group to raise all that money to purchase it from the University of Michigan. I was 33 years old then and had never witnessed an effort like that to preserve something that was so very historically important.”
It’s important to note that Paul worked on these projects with many other good people. He would be the first to point out that these things are accomplished through a group effort. It illustrates Paul’s strong sense of community and the energy he brought to the table.
A few years after the dam removal, Paul set his sights on cityhood for the Village of Dexter. At the time, the Village of Dexter was split between Webster and Scio townships, governed by two different municipalities.
“Paul felt that we should be a city and was part of the group that strongly supported that push because of what it would do to bring us together as a community,” said Keough.
Dexter voters chose to become a city in 2014. Next on the list for Paul—a new fire station. The current one was built in the 1950s. Anyone following along knows Paul has been an ardent advocate for the construction of a new public safety facility for Dexter, which has stymied and frustrated councils for years.
However, the city council has been successfully moving forward with plans for a new facility. Voters approved funding for it in the November election, which ended Paul’s last term on the city council.
Last July, Paul announced he was stepping away from the city council for medical reasons. For him to miss a council meeting signaled something serious.
“When he was unable to join the council meetings, I knew that he was not doing well,” says Mayor Keough. “Whenever I stopped by to see him, no matter his condition, he invited me in, and we spent time together in his family room. I am happy I could do that, and I treasure those last few visits.”
Mayor Keough and Paul had their disagreements over the years. But the sharp division over various city issues only strengthened their friendship.
“Paul and I were good friends for over 18 years, and I learned a lot about the history of our town and about many of the things that we all treasure here in Dexter,” says Keough. “Paul was always full of emotion and lousy at hiding it. If he was happy, you knew it right away. If Paul wasn’t happy, well, he had his own special way of showing that also. But rarely did you leave a conversation with Paul wondering how he felt, which I always appreciated as a friend and co-member of the council.”
Paul’s ubiquitous presence at city meetings and community events will be sorely missed but undoubtedly appreciated for generations to come by people who never knew him but benefited from the impact of his work.
One last note: As far as a bypass around Dexter’s famous truck-eating, traffic-clogging viaduct, we may have Paul to thank for never getting one. The conversation arose in 2006 when the 70-acre Gordon Hall property was purchased. If built, the bypass would bisect the property. Paul vehemently opposed it, as did others.
“We didn’t preserve Gordon Hall just to put a road through it,” Paul once said.
As Al Ritt said, and many of us know, “That guy just would not budge.”
When asked for an earlier article about what had driven him with such passion all these years, Paul succinctly replied, “I had a mind to get involved because you have to stand up for what you think is right.”
And we’re glad he did.
Paul’s obituary can be found at https://www.mitchellfuneral.com/obituaries/paul-cousins