Dr. Louise Cowan: A Heart that Sees

The liberal arts world is mourning the luminous Dr. Louise Cowan, who died at the age of 98 after a life utterly given over to the love of literature, poetry, and her students. 

She had Homer, Faulkner, Dostoevsky and John Crowe Ransom at her fingertips, and she took the scholarship of Maritain and Cardinal Newman as a mandate. Her influence in the study of the humanities cannot be overstated. She and her husband, the late physicist Dr. Donald Cowan, converted to Catholicism in the 1950's and spent their days converting the heart of the educational world. 

The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture lists some of her accomplishments

Dr. Louise S. Cowan was inaugural holder of the Louise Cowan Chair of Literature at the University of Dallas and is a Founding Fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. She is formerly Chair of the English Department and Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Dallas. She and her husband Donald Cowan were central and instrumental in the creation and building of both the University of Dallas and the Dallas Institute. In 1983 she conceived of and initiated the Teachers Academy at the Dallas Institute, which in July 2009 conducted its 26th consecutive Summer Institute for Teachers, a program that the National Endowment for the Humanities called a “model for the nation” and for which, among other contributions, she received the Charles Frankel Prize in 1991, now called the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest award for work in the humanities. During her long career, she has received numerous awards for her achievements in teaching and advancing liberal education.

She was the author of several books about literary genre and the role of higher education. Dr. Louise is as widely remembered for her gracious personal presence as she is for her scholarship. In a 1993 essay, Dr. Glenn Arbery describes "her voice, with its almost uncanny Orphic ability to draw the heart out of hiding." She taught a seminar at Thomas More College in Merrimack, NH, when I was a freshman there, and she spent time talking in private with every student who wrote an essay for her. She took everyone seriously, and made them feel capable of great thought.

Although she smiled warmly and spoke gently (and, if I remember rightly, barely cleared five feet in height!), I was somewhat abashed, not only by her chic southern elegance, but by the dark sunglasses she wore at all times. Dr. Louise suffered from a thyroid disorder which left her nearly blind, and after a series of surgeries, her eyeballs protruded and were discolored, and her face was scarred. 

Another student went into her office after me. For several reasons, this girl was on the outs with the community in our small school, and she was difficult to live with.  What private sufferings she endured, I don't know, and never cared to consider at the time. The young woman said that Dr. Louise talked with her for a while, and then took her sunglasses off, exposing the part of her that she hid from most of the world. I don't know if they talked about literature at all, or just about life, but the girl came out radiating peace. Dr. Louise did not, I believe, acknowledge such a thing as an "outsider." 

In an address to faculty at the University at Dallas, Dr. Louise said: 

Willmoore Kendall once asked me, “Louise, why do you want people to love each other?” “Because it’s more fun that way,” I responded. But that was not the right answer. I should have said, as Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical puts it, “Because God lavishes on us a love which we must in turn share with others . . . in a heart that sees.”

One more story, and I dearly hope I remember it correctly. Dr. Louise's husband, Dr. Donald Cowan, author of Unbinding Prometheus and president of the University of Dallas for many years, was as famous and accomplished (if not as universally imitated!) as Dr. Louise. Near the end of his life, he became so impaired that he didn't even recognize her, and someone asked, "Why do you spend so much time with him? He doesn't even know who you are." She answered, "Yes, but I know who he is."

God rest the soul of this great lady.