Isabel Dubert, Contributing Writer
Friends, family, faculty and students gathered on Friday, April 4, in Gorman Faculty Lounge to celebrate the life of Dr. Donald A. Cowan, third president of the University of Dallas, who would have been 100 years old this May 26th. Presentations were given by his colleagues, friends and students, including Leo Paul de Alvarez, John Alvis, Eileen Gregory, Robert S. Dupree, David Gregory, Sybil Novinski and Claudia Allums. The afternoon concluded with a special presentation by Dr. Louise Cowan, Dr. Donald Cowan’s wife.
Donald A. Cowan, who served as professor of physics and president of the University of Dallas from 1962 to 1977, was not merely a member of the faculty: He was a mentor, a friend, a guide, a husband, a father, a teacher. He was the founding inspiration of the University of Dallas, the visionary leader who stood beside the formidable figure of Dr. Louise S. Cowan, distinguished professor of literature and former graduate dean and chair of the English department. The guests who assembled came to commemorate the life of this remarkable man and to hear about it from those who lived it with him.
Dr. Bainard Cowan, son of the late president Donald Cowan and a UD English professor, began the presentations, calling his father, “the man who gave UD its unique orientation toward the future by a pursuit of the wisdom of the tradition.”
Dr. Eileen Gregory, a former student and, later, a fellow faculty member of President Cowan, began her talk by quoting the poem on the Tower by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty”: “All things counter, original, spare, strange.” She said that Cowan was all these things — counter, original, spare and strange — but particularly spare and strange. Her statement elicited a laugh from the audience. She told several stories that highlighted Cowan’s unconventional heroism — his high standards, his big expectations and his way of inspiring heroism in others.
Later, Sybil Novinski, the university historian, presented the audience with a copy of a fall convocation address given by Donald Cowan in 1964, “The New Sensibility,” which she found in the University Archives. “[The address] encapsulates his style and the direction of his insight,” she said.
Dr. Claudia Allums, a former student of Donald Cowan and now the director of the Louise and Donald Cowan Center for Education and the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, also highlighted Cowan’s written work. At the beginning of her presentation, she quoted from Cowan’s book, “Unbinding Prometheus,” which is a collection of his essays and lectures. “For the liberal arts are not merely a received tradition from the world’s past but fully as much an ongoing creation toward its end, toward the fulfillment of things. All of us are engaged in that creation. We ourselves are the living manifestation of the truth that ‘makes us free,’ the truth that is constantly granted to us in the process of learning,” she read aloud. Dr. Claudia went on to describe how teachers and educators typically react to that passage when she reads it at the beginning of her seminars. During one of the seminars, a woman held up her hand, hid her face with the other, and said: “Stop. It’s so beautiful, and it’s so true. Stop, so that we can take it in.”
Junior Killian Beeler, who attended the Cowan birthday celebration, said that, during Allums’ presentation, he was also moved by the passage and even started to tear up a little at the beauty and power of the words of Dr. Cowan.
Dr. Dupree, another student and later fellow faculty member of President Cowan, reminisced about the day when he opened the Dallas Morning News and saw that the University of Dallas had fired its former president, and that Dr. Donald Cowan had been chosen to succeed him. He remembered thinking to himself: “Now things are really going to start rolling!”
Before giving the last talk of the event, Dr. Louise Cowan paused and, insisting that everybody’s throats must be parched, ordered us all to have our fill of wine and cheese. After we had wined and dined, she told us a story. She had once gone into an old, used bookstore somewhere in Dallas sometime shortly after she and Don were married, and, picking up a volume of Hopkins, found that she could not understand much of it at all. She brought it home to Don saying, “I really can’t make much sense out of this.” He, however, in his unwavering confidence and genius said, “I can.” Dr. Louise continued, “He taught me how to read Hopkins. And I always thought that I was his best pupil.”
As the late President Donald Cowan often said, “Indeed, there is a spirit that walks these hills.” All of the presentations at the birthday celebration emphasized what his son, Dr. Bainard Cowan, added: “I believe that Donald Cowan was that spirit.”