In their retirement, the Coutures are busier than ever. When we met with them, they had just returned from a full day outing to explore nearby Harper’s Ferry National Park, and before that a 10-day intensive piano camp in the Rockies. (The Coutures admit they are consumed with music. They both take piano lessons, something Barbara been doing since age 7, whereas Paul started upon retirement a few years ago.) Avid readers, they are also in a book club with local alumni in the DC area and enjoy the variety of U-M connections they’ve made. They took time to talk with us at Rackham to share their journey and talk about how passionate they are about staying connected to their alma mater.
Barbara and Paul met as undergraduate students at U-M in the late 60s. Paul was a waiter in Barbara’s sorority house. She recalls, “Back then, we had to dress for dinner. The waiters wore white coats and ties, but that didn’t prevent them from giving us sly comments every now again. Paul and I would talk on the back steps of the house. It wasn’t uncommon then.”
Barbara began her career as a school teacher then junior high assistant principal in the Livonia public school system after leaving U-M with a B.A. in English and a teaching certificate. Paul worked for U-M for 29 years, using his B.A. in architecture to take the 1920s era U-M hospital to a 21st century facility. He capped his career at U-M working at the architect’s office for several years on the acquisition and renovation of campus buildings.
Barbara came back to U-M initially for required courses to keep her teaching certificate up to date. She recalls, “I just kept going. I went on to get Master’s, then I learned about the Doctor of Arts degree in the Department of English and thought it was a great program for someone like me – I was a little older, had been working in the public school system, had my Master’s and wasn’t going to be a resident grad student. The Ph.D. program’s strength was working with expertise of faculty members who not only were excellent, but also had a deep respect for students and the experience they brought to that program. All were professionals and students, and the professors enhanced the understanding of that experience through our readings.” Despite not being a typical grad student at the time, Barbara had a wonderful experience and met a lot of great friends there. She had a teaching fellowship, teaching in both the School of Education and the English department.
She taught part-time at a community college until she finished her graduate degree and was offered a job at Wayne State University, recommended for the job by her graduate school colleagues. That became the foundation for her career in higher education, and she remained at Wayne State for 19 years. “The Ph.D. program was hugely instrumental in making that transition. I was promoted to assistant principal in two schools and became a tenured English professor and associate dean at two colleges,” Barbara comments. Her career evolved from there, becoming a dean, provost, and university president over the years.
Paul’s career evolved as well, but throughout, his 35 years at U-M were the most memorable. He comments, “Education continually intrigued me. I wanted to stay as a part of the university community and continue to educate myself and be around the process of education. Working to build facilities that allowed better education, research, and practice for education was terrific. It allowed that interest to flourish.”
When managing their careers, the Coutures have mastered taking turns and highly emphasize the ability to focus on one thing at a time. Barbara shares, “We didn’t try to handle too much at once. We both were working and concentrating on doing the best we could with what we were doing at the time. At first, I was 22 and teaching middle school; it took me a few years to find my stride. We tried to take on limited things at a time.” Paul adds, “We planned a few years out for excursions, thinking in 3-5 year segments and not worrying too much about the long-term future. In this way, we were able to accommodate each other. For example, while we loved the Ann Arbor community, after 12 years of Barbara commuting to Detroit, it got a little overwhelming so we moved closer to Detroit and I commuted. And it turned out to be a great experience living in an old rust belt city.” Barbara echoes, “It’s a shared responsibility and one person shouldn’t be entirely giving to the other.”
They are valued contributors to U-M in a variety of ways, and for Barbara, that call to action comes from a deep understanding of the value of her education. “My own experience as a graduate student enabled me to have a career well beyond my first dreams. Never in the world did I think I would be a university professor, dean, provost, or university president, but my graduate education enabled all of that and expanded my horizons. As a former professor, I also understand the importance of a graduate education. It is particularly important for people who are working and finishing graduate school. Graduate student scholarships are a huge boon for them.”
“Public universities will always be part of our DNA. Support is important for the future of our young people and for the future of our country,” she continues. Paul echoes, “It is important for more alumni to contribute, even in small ways. Our contribution does not come with control but with great admiration and respect.”