Dr. Fred Couts leaves beloved college its largest gift
Fred A. Couts, D.O., ’53, was the real thing by anyone’s definition.
Complex, committed, caring, and larger than life, Dr. Couts is remembered for many things, namely his scores of friends and his love for his profession and the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine.
When he died in 2009, he left the greater part of his estate, approximately $7 million, to his beloved college. And although it’s the biggest demonstration of his gratitude and affection, one would be remiss to let it be the sole legacy of a man who spent his life putting his money, his time, and his energy where his principles were.
Known for his colorful, tell-it-likeit- is language, Dr. Couts “said what he thought, and he said it loudly and to everybody,” says longtime friend Gene Barbour, D.O., ’59. “When HMOs began, he thought they were a real abomination but knew he had to participate. He would complain up a storm to his patients and anyone who would listen, and he filled his office like mad.”
Why, one wonders, would patients be drawn to him considering all that grumbling?
“They knew he would go bonkers to make sure they were taken care of properly,” Dr. Barbour explains.
A small-town doc in the big city, his patients were his “babies,” says Dr. Barbour. “He knew his patients, their families, and their problems. In short, he knew everything about everybody.”
Dr. Couts didn’t want his patients to suffer, and according to Dr. Barbour “hated chronic illness and prolonged treatment,” which cruelly and ironically characterized the end of his friend’s dynamic life.
When he died, a patient who had been with him for 54 years said it was like losing a family member.
“He was very caring,” says Biesemeyer, who remembers him coming in the office on days off to see sick patients. “He was part of a dying breed of physicians.”
Dr. Barbour’s wife was perhaps his biggest fan. Nearing her delivery date, she wanted Dr. Couts, who was leaving the Lackland Clinical Group, which Dr. Barbour was joining, to deliver her baby. Unfortunately, her due date was after Dr. Couts was to leave to begin a private practice, and her husband thought it politically correct for her to have the baby at his new practice.
She had other plans.
“She wanted Fred to deliver that baby, and she drank castor oil and did Sousa marches to induce labor,” Dr. Barbour says laughing. “It worked. He delivered the baby, and never again did I let politics intervene.”
Dr. Couts also delivered the Barbours’ two subsequent children.
Having known Dr. Couts since he arrived in St. Louis in 1959 as an intern at Normandy Osteopathic Hospital, Dr. Barbour remembers his friend taking interns and externs out to dinner, and hosting elegant parties at his house in support of the profession. Not one to do anything halfway, and with a taste for the so-called finer things in life, Dr. Couts was a gentleman who enjoyed and took great pride in entertaining in his home while supporting his profession.
Friends with “everyone,” especially osteopathic physicians, and to narrow it down even further, KCOM physicians, Dr. Couts “was loved by patients, other physicians, and the profession,” Dr. Barbour says.
In his 55-year career, he was shadowed by countless prospective students, wrote numerous letters of recommendation, helped new D.O.s set up their practice, and always “wanted to make sure otherphysicians had what they needed to practice,” Biesemeyer says.
“He never forgot where his success began,” says Dr. Couts’ partner of 52 years, Charles Mueller, “and he attributed it all to the college.”
Dr. Barbour agrees. “He loved the college, and he loved Kirksville. He liked living there, and he could never find anything negative to say about it. He thought the college produced the best physicians anywhere.” Just as important, he says, Dr. Couts believed in the osteopathic philosophy and that manipulation is an important part of its practice.
“He was faithful to his profession and believed in the full complement of what would help a patient,” Mueller says.
And while he worked hard, he played equally hard, Mueller says. With a love of travel, Dr. Couts made several trans-Atlantic crossings, particularly enjoyed the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth 2, and never missed a KCOM alumni cruise – except once when he was ill. He also often stayed at his condo in New Orleans. His last trip was in 2007, during which he and Mueller toured London before traveling to Paris. “It was a thrill,” Mueller says.
Dr. Barbour remembers another unforgettable trip, this one a skiing trip to Germany in which his friend, at the time a practicing obstetrician, demonstrated characteristic determination.
“Fred had absolutely no talent for skiing,” he says. “He would stand straight as a stick, go straight down the slope, fall over a$$ over appetite, get up, grab the rope tow, and do it again. And he did it for half a day. The man working the slope told me, ‘That OB is giving me a headache.’”
“He was, in his own way, a complex character, to say the least, and we appreciated each other’s values,” says Mueller, who was privy to the reserved side of an outspoken man, a man who also guarded his feelings, was private, sometimes quiet, and often conservative.
Mueller and Dr. Barbour also witnessed their friend’s unique sense of humor, and his generosity.
“He was good to patients who couldn’t pay, but could spot a deadbeat in a minute,” Mueller says.“He was more tenderhearted than he often wanted to admit. He didn’t brag, but I heard about his good deeds from others.”
Indeed, recognition was not a motivation for Dr. Couts, who was well known as a savvy investor who appreciated the value of money.
“He knew money, and he knew how to make money,” Mueller says. Dr. Barbour adds, with a note of goodspirited envy, “He had an uncanny knack of buying and selling at the right time.”
“He had a personality that was absolutely unbelievable,” he says. A do-er, his friend knew “whom to call and how to make things happen. When he saw something that needed done, he would make it happen.”
In fact, the administration building on the Missouri campus – whose lobby was once called a “disaster” (before an extensive renovation) by Dr. Couts – this April was renamed the Couts Learning Center in recognition of his lifelong support of the college.
Character and reputation. A tree and its shadow. A life is spent in strengthening both, and all who knew him best would agree Fred Couts casts a mighty big shadow, in life and in death.