In Memoriam: Dr. Louise Cowan

Emily Lataif, Staff Writer

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Dr. Louise Cowan addresses an audience at a University of Dallas event. Photo courtesy of University Archives

Dr. Louise Cowan, former University of Dallas English professor and founder of the university’s Literary Tradition sequence and the UD Institute for Philosophical Studies, passed away on Monday at Texas Presbyterian Hospital at 2:27 a.m. She was surrounded by her son, UD English professor Dr. Bainard Cowan, his wife, Christine, and their eldest daughter, Claire. She was 98 years old.

Friend and colleague, UD historian and archivist Sybil Novinski, confirmed her death.

Dr. Cowan was born in 1916 in Fort Worth, Texas. She and her husband, Dr. Donald Cowan, whom she met at a Presbyterian church, received their bachelor’s degrees at Texas Christian University (TCU): hers in English and music, his in physics. They received advanced degrees at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee before returning to Texas to teach at TCU.

At TCU, Dr. Louise Cowan converted to the Catholic faith after many years of agnosticism, which affected many aspects of her life. In 1959, she and her husband took positions as chairs of the English and physics departments, respectively, at UD. Three years later, Dr. Donald Cowan became president of the university. He passed away in 2002.

At UD, in addition to founding the Institute for Philosophic Studies Ph.D. program, Dr. Louise Cowan founded the Literary Tradition sequence. This series of four literature courses forms a key component of the Core curriculum at the university.

“We can learn to live from literature,” she said in an interview.

UD alumnus and board member Bridgett Wagner noted Dr. Louise’s widespread impact on UD students.

“Although I never took a class with Dr. Cowan, I was privileged to hear her lecture on a number of occasions … She spoke of poetry and literature and our future in that warm, Southern accent that drew you close and made you listen carefully,” Wagner said. “She taught students about heroic things, permanent things: truth and love and beauty. One of the reasons I think so many UD students have gone on to teach or practice law or medicine or work in Washington is that we were inspired by great teachers like Dr. Cowan to lead meaningful lives.”

Friends and colleagues at UD reflected on her life.

“It is difficult to conceive of the university without Dr. Cowan’s indomitable and loving spirit,” Novinski said. “Even though she had long ago stopped teaching, Dr. Louise still served as mentor to many graduate students … Her love for the university was, as she once described it to me, ‘almost idolatrous.’ We mourn the passing of a truly great teacher and leader.”

Longtime colleague Dr. Scott Crider noted Cowan’s role in making UD a unique community of learners.

“She was a great lady, and all of us dwell in the educational world she and her husband helped fashion here on this small, but special hill in Irving, Texas,” Crider said in an email. “If UD has a cosmopolitan Catholicism, it really was she who gave it to us. With learning, imagination and vision, she made an educational poem for her children to dwell in — a comic curricular epic of hope and love. And, with her fashionable sunglasses, her prophetic hair and her enchanting voice, she gave that epic a style all her own.”

Former student of Dr. Louise Cowan and current UD English professor Dr. Kathryn Davis reflected on Dr. Louise Cowan’s impact on her own teaching career.

“I took two classes from Dr. Louise,” Davis said. “[She] insisted that a teacher, one who bears the responsibility of drawing students toward a love of literature, must conceive of himself or herself as a missionary: this expression of vocation was electrifying to me … She’s the only person I’ve ever met who took an elevator ride with T.S. Eliot. When, having gasped in awe, we asked her what she said to him, she replied, in her beautiful southern accent, ‘I didn’t speak to him at all. Why, what was I supposed to say, ‘I really loved “The Waste Land?’’ ‘ Classic.”

While Dr. Louise Cowan’s passing will be deeply felt in the university community, her influence spreads far beyond Irving.

“She changed cities,” said Gail Thomas, a close friend.

Thomas was once dean of students at UD and would go on to found the Dallas Institute for the Humanities and Culture with Dr. Louise in 1980.

“Invited by Dallas Mayor Erik Jonsson in the early ‘70s to be leaders in his Goals for Dallas project, Dr. Cowan, with her husband President Donald Cowan, inspired leaders in all areas of civic life by writing the Introduction for the Goals for Dallas program,” Thomas wrote in an email. “Dr. Cowan co-chaired with Annette Strauss the Arts Division of Goals for Dallas, and it was there she became life-long friends with Margaret McDermott and other leaders of our city.”

Thomas also explained Dr. Louise Cowan’s impact on her students’ lives.

“Dr. Louise Cowan possessed a noble vision for humankind and for our culture,” Thomas said. “Her students are in the thousands now, teaching throughout the world and carrying on her profound understanding of the highest calling of what it means to be human.”

Kristen Harris, a former student of Dr. Louise at the Dallas Institute for the Humanities, cited Dr. Louise Cowan as one of her greatest inspirations.

“She made me into the teacher I am now. Looking back, I had no idea what it meant to be a teacher when I came to the institute,” Harris said. “I was about to start my first year of teaching, and I was lost. She … inspired me to keep reading, keep writing, keep learning. She is one of the only reasons I’m still teaching. Her passion for teachers and her love for us and our work gives me the hope I need on the hardest days.”

Among the many awards and honors she received was the Charles Frankel Prize, bestowed upon her in 1991 by President George H. Bush. The Frankel Prize is the country’s highest award for achievement in the humanities.

“I can’t tell you how many thousands of lives Louise Cowan made better,” UD journalism director Rudy Bush said. “But I’m one of them. She not only convinced me I could write, she convinced me I should so that I could have the best possible life. And I’ll always be grateful.”

A funeral Mass for Dr. Louise Cowan will be celebrated at Christ the King Catholic Church in Dallas on Monday, Nov. 23 at 10 a.m.

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