The Story Behind the Name: Cowan Dining Commons

Posted by Centre News in News 04 Aug 2016

Cowan Dining CommonsYoung, Crounse, Sutcliffe, Breckinridge . . . today these names are simply places where we go to learn chemistry or philosophy, to work out, to meet a professor or hang with a friend. But before they were attached to particular buildings, these names belonged to real people whose close ties to Centre reveal fascinating stories.

As the College wends its way toward its bicentennial in 2019, it seems timely to recall the people who lent their names to campus landmarks.

Cowan Dining Commons honors trustee and board chair J. Rice Cowan-1890 and his wife, Viola Palmer Cowan. At the time of his death in 1953, he was the College’s second longest-serving board chair. The original Cowan Dining Commons stood for more than 45 years, 1962-2008. When the new Campus Center opened, on the same location, in October 2009, its main dining hall remained Cowan Dining Commons.

COWAN DINING COMMONS
J. Rice Cowan-1890 was devoted to medicine, his college, his church, and his wife, though not necessarily in that order.

Born in Danville on Feb. 7, 1872, he attended Centre Academy and the College, followed by three years at Harvard Medical School and two years as an intern at Boston City Hospital. In spite of offers to remain in Boston, he returned to his hometown, where he spent the next 57 years practicing medicine, until his death at the age of 81, on Aug. 17, 1953.

J. Rice Cowan

J. Rice Cowan-1890

In choosing his profession, he followed his father, George Cowan-1851, and older brother, Harry J. Cowan-1881/A.M. 1885. Rice Cowan was an early member of the American College of Surgeons, president of the Kentucky State Medical Association in 1924, and a leader in rescuing the house of pioneer surgeon Ephraim McDowell and turning it into a museum. “Patriotic in the extreme,” as one biographer noted, he volunteered for World War I when he was nearly 50, serving briefly in the U.S. Medical Corps. He was a vestryman of Trinity Episcopal Church for more than 50 years and was twice an official delegate to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

Gracious, courtly, and generous with both his time and resources over his long life, Cowan was an ardent believer in the advantages of a liberal arts education. In an undated alumni survey, he wrote that it is “impossible to pursue [a] course leading to [a] degree of M.D. without college training in science, language and humanities.”

And although he spent his career absorbed by science, his two named gifts to Centre continue to support the English program. After his sister’s death in 1924, he established the Emily R. Cowan Memorial Prize for the best English paper by a returning student. He and his wife, Viola Palmer Cowan, also left money in their wills to establish the J. Rice Cowan Professorship in English. First awarded in 1963, the Cowan Professorship was the first of the College’s named professorships.

Cowan’s tenure on the Board of Trustees began in 1917. He became chair in 1934 upon the death of his predecessor and led the board during the College’s desperately poor years of the Great Depression and the tumultuous years of World War II. The College awarded him an honorary degree in 1947, and, just before he died, the yearbook staff of 1953 dedicated their edition to him.

He married Viola, an orphan from Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1902. Viola and her best friend, May Allen Moore, both attended Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, Ga., where the Cowans first met. Throughout their long life together he wrote Viola love poems, according to their goddaughter, Viola Cowan Tarrer Matlin ’59.

Moore and her daughter, May Moore Tarrer ’32, spent many happy hours with the Cowans. When it came time to name her own daughter, Tarrer chose to honor her dear friends with the name Viola Cowan.

Cowan Dining Commons (1962)

Cowan Dining Commons, 1962

In 1937, Rice Cowan wrote a letter to Tarrer’s infant daughter:

Dear Little Viola Cowan,
Uncle Rice has not seen you but he loves you very much because of two other people whom he loves—your dear Mother and your Aunt Vi. College opens soon and I am registering you to enter the class of 1955 when you will be just 18 years old.
I wish I thought I could be here to see you start and have you live with us to bring back some of the love and gladness we had when your mother was here, but I would be a very old man then.

Matlin did indeed enroll at Centre, though by that time her “Uncle Rice” had died and she found she missed home in Mississippi.

At his death, a fellow trustee cabled regret at being unable to attend the doctor’s funeral in Danville.

“He was one of the country’s noble men,” wrote Fred M. Vinson-1909/11L, at the time Chief Justice of the United States.

by Diane Johnson
August 4, 2016

TOP PHOTO: Cowan Dining Commons today

Article featured in the summer 2016 edition of Centrepiece magazine.