Little known facts: the Cowans [continued]

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Louise Cowan poses glamorously for a picture. Photo courtesy of UD Archives.

Welcome back. I hope you enjoyed the first installment of this piece. If you missed it, keep your eyes peeled for last week’s newspaper lying around or go to udallasnews.com. Last week we covered Drs. Donald and Louise Cowan’s educations and early lives right until they came to the University of Dallas in 1959.

That summer, Louise Cowan rallied the English department to create the four-semester Literary Tradition sequence.

Dr. Eileen Gregory of the English department relayed her experience of studying under the Cowans and their famous cocktail parties.

“They loved to have students and faculty over to their house, and there was always lots of fun, drinking and teasing,” Gregory said. “They had a huge marble coffee table that they loved to have everyone gather around, and they had really high caliber conversations there … about culture at large, good writers and education.”

“They built a community through that kind of conversation,” Gregory added.

In 1962, Donald Cowan became the third president of UD.

“[He was] a kind of poet-physicist, a visionary and a very original thinker,” Gregory said. “He was casual, and very welcoming, and he really was president. He was not as powerful of a speaker as Louise, but he was wry and ironic.”

Poet Allen Tate’s wife, Caroline Gordon, a close friend of the Cowan family, said that “Don” wrote the best prose, according to their son Dr. Bainard Cowan of the Braniff Graduate School.  

Bainard also said that his father had a unique ability to “sniff out what was real.”

Donald Cowan believed you “could build a university through language,” Gregory said.  

He kept talking about their vision and about the intellectual life he believed UD was destined to attain. Slowly, it became reality.   

Louise Cowan was largely influenced by New Criticism, which, as Associate Provost Dr. John Norris put it, “teaches that literature has the universal capacity to convey truth, goodness and beauty.”

So I was surprised to hear from Bainard Cowan that his mother did not follow a specific theory of education.

“Louise was working out her own literary theory as she was teaching, and she included her students in this process,” Gregory clarified. “She was always discovering something new, even in her later years.”

I was even more taken aback when Norris told me that “it was not infrequent that Dr. Cowan tussled with ‘protectors’ of the Core.”

“She thought reimagining the Core as a necessary feature of the Core,” explained Norris.

Like today, many people feared that any change in the Core could lead to its dissolution. Yet Louise Cowan was vocal about not making the Core an idol, a false image of something much greater, and in doing so missing the point of education.

“It would be counter to the nature of what we are as a Catholic liberal arts university to not question why we have these courses,” Norris said. “Dr. Cowan believed the Core to be an open canon, not a divinely inspired closed canon.”

This is not to say that Louise Cowan was in favor of scrapping the Core at the drop of a hat, but rather of continually reviewing the Core with an open mind, and when necessary, “replacing courses and texts with something better,” said Norris.

Everyone I talked to about Louise Cowan mentioned her voice.

“She was the most mesmerizing speaker [I have] ever seen,” said Norris.

“When she spoke, the singer in her came out,” said Gregory.

“They used to compare her to the sirens, because when she spoke, you could barely keep yourself from agreeing with her,” Norris joked.

Parker Novey, a student worker in the archives, provided an apt summation of Louise’s eloquence.

“She had real force, she could move people, and persuade them that what she was doing was important and right,” Novey said.

One of Donald Cowan’s better remembered sayings goes, “Indeed, there is a spirit that walks these hills.”

Norris explained that Donald Cowan believed that UD has “its own special genius that is guided by the Holy Spirit and that is unconquerable.”

When Cowan referred to the “spirit,” he referred not only to the spirit found in the UD students, or in the education they receive, but to a truly divine Spirit that guides and protects our university.

I asked Bainard Cowan what his parents would want to say to UD students today.

“They would tell students, do not think that your background can hold you back,” Cowan said. “The love of truth can be a powerful engine to move you forward.”

The Cowans embodied that truth, and we are blessed that their journey toward truth brought them to UD, and that we, as students, are able to benefit from what they left behind.

The “spirit in these hills” now has yet another meaning. The Cowans’ spirit will live on in the tradition of the Core curriculum, and more accurately, in its influence on you and me and every UD student.

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