When Louise Cowan and her husband Donald first began teaching at the University of Dallas in the fall semester of 1959, the university itself was beginning its fourth year of operation. At the end of that year, the institution celebrated its first commencement exercises. A new president — the former vice-president — was in charge and had initiated an honors program for a select group of entering freshman that fall. Unlike the other students, whose required courses were mostly based on standard academic textbooks, the honors program participants read full versions of “great books” from Greco-Roman times up to the present.
Louise Cowan had been hired as chair of the English department, her husband as chair of the physics department, and both helped teach the honors students, in addition to their other courses and duties.
Early in the following spring, during a meeting of the honors program instructors, Louise Cowan asked, “Why are not all our students ‘honors students?’ ” The honors program did not continue beyond that first year, but for the next fall semester, she redesigned all four semesters of the required 12 hours of English. Thus emerged the first building blocks of what we now call “the Core.”
It is no exaggeration to state that Louise Cowan, not long after she arrived, had an immediate influence on the University of Dallas that persists to this day. The Literary Tradition sequence she devised not only continues more or less in the same form as its original design with only a few minor changes; ultimately it was to change the entire required curriculum as other disciplines began to shape their basic courses to mirror some of its features.
I was something of a witness to the planning of that sequence as a student worker for the English department. But, having been a student a full year before the Cowans arrived, I was never able to take any of its courses.
I did, however, take one among the first courses Louise taught here: the sophomore survey of English literature. I will never forget the first day of class that fall semester. She entered the room and began speaking at once. Not five minutes passed before I realized that I had never heard anyone speak with the kind of passion, conviction and commitment to any subject whatsoever than she gave to literature. I was affected by her from the moment I first witnessed her in action, and decided, then and there, that she was engaged in something I, too, wanted to share. In short, she changed my life from day one.
Louise Cowan inspired me to excel. Without her inspiration, I would never have dared to apply for, much less hope to be granted, the first Fulbright scholarship for a year’s study abroad awarded to a UD graduate. I would not have risked applying for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship that would eventually pay my way through three years of graduate studies at Yale.
When I returned here to teach as a professor in the English department three and a half years later, many more changes had taken place at the university, thanks to Donald Cowan’s appointment as president the very day after my graduation. I became part of the faculty just in time to participate in the planning for the first graduate programs to be initiated here in the fall of 1966. In addition to crafting a master’s degree in English, she and Willmoore Kendall created the politics and literature doctoral programs, unique in the country at that time. Later, some years after Kendall’s untimely death, Cowan expanded its interdisciplinary structure to include other disciplines as well, until at one point there were five in all. A well-known literary critic and esteemed expert on Southern literature, she initiated a large number of courses on a variety of other subjects that were taught for the first time on campus and were later to become standard offerings in the literature curriculum. She and her husband, eight years after he was named president, guided the the implementation of the Rome program in 1970.
In all this time, both Cowans were actively engaged in the wider Dallas-Ft.Worth communities, beginning in the 1960s with Goals for Dallas and eventually leading to the planning and founding of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, in which they both played critical roles from 1980 on.
Louise Cowan has influenced so many people and changed so many lives for the better that I could not began to list her students and those who benefitted from her teaching and other activities. Suffice it to say that she will remain, for a long time to come, among that very small group of people without whom, the present University of Dallas would be unthinkable.