Little known facts: the Cowans

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Donald and Louise Cowan pose for a picture in Braniff, with the Tower in the background. Photo courtesy of UD Archives.

It is impossible to capture the personality and spirit of Drs. Louise and Donald Cowan, the couple that was instrumental in establishing the Core curriculum, in such a short space. However, I feel a responsibility to attempt such a feat and, perhaps, with the help of the Muses, I will do their legacy justice.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Braniff Graduate School Professor Dr. Bainard Cowan about his parents. Bainard Cowan told me that Donald and Louise both grew up in Fort Worth and met in church choir.

Noticing Louise, Donald slipped her a note that read: “Do you like poetry?”

Louise wrote back, “Good poetry.”

Soon, young Louise was surprised to find that Donald had better taste in poetry than she did. Their love of poetry drew them together, and they were married in 1939.

Initially, Donald completed only one year of college before taking over the family printing business, and Louise was just shy of a music degree in voice.

During WWII, they moved to New York, where Donald worked as a radar engineer, helping to solve flaws in the technology that was crucial to detecting enemy aircraft.

They lived in Manhattan and worked in Brooklyn, a typically backwards situation. However, Louise wanted to be at the center of culture. Her son described her to me as “ambitious,” but only for truth.

“She had a passion to find out what was what in the world,” said Bainard Cowan.

They dove into the center of American culture and frequented symphonies composed by the “who’s who” of music and “sought out the big names in literature,” he added.

In 1946, the Cowans went back to school. Louise received a degree in English, and Donald went through an accelerated physics program. Louise had become enchanted with a group of influential literary critics known as The Fugitives (AKA the Southern Critics), who developed the literary theory of New Criticism.

The Cowans attended Vanderbilt for their doctorate degrees; Louise studied English under some of the Fugitives and wrote her dissertation on them, and Donald received his Ph.D. in Physics.

After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1949, the Cowans moved back to Fort Worth with their newborn son Bainard, converted to Roman Catholicism, and were introduced to Eugene Constantin, one of the founding benefactors of UD.

“[My parents] had seen education going in the wrong direction and knew they had to get involved,” Cowan said.

In 1959, Donald left his position at General Dynamics and Louise her tenure at Texas Christian University to join the UD faculty.

They saw something special in the wooded hills surrounding UD’s small campus.

“Feeling like they themselves came from nothing, they felt at home building UD from the ground up,” Cowan said.

With Europe in shambles and communism and fascism on the rise, the Cowans felt that education was an urgent concern and that Western civilization literally needed saving, according to Dr. Eileen Gregory of the English department.

Furthermore, Gregory said that Louise and Donald believed that UD would be the protectorate of that culture.

“The Cowans believed UD was destined to be an outstanding university that was going to change education in the United States,” said Associate Provost Dr. John Norris.

… To be continued.

(Perhaps ambition led me to think that I could capture Donald and Louise Cowan’s story in one piece. If so, I have been made a fool. But, alas, I refuse to compromise more than I already have in delivering you their story. So, we are forced to adjourn for now, but only to continue next week where we left off.)

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