“Richard Cowan: Man of Uncommon Vision,” Ensign, Jan. 1988, 61–62
Because he is blind, when Richard Cowan goes somewhere he hasn’t been before, he usually makes a special map of the area. Brother Cowan, a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, says, “I guess I’ve always wanted to know where I am—just because it would be so easy not to.” He calls his maps “raised-line maps,” and they are ingenious textural guides. He makes highways with corded strings, streets with thin threads, bodies of water with corduroy, and parks with velvet. All points of interest are tactilely differentiated.
He likes to share these creations. “When I went to Mexico City,” he explains, “I made a whole series of maps of the city and the country, had several copies made, took them with me, and presented them to an organization for the blind with the hope that they would help someone.” Brother Cowan now has these maps reproduced in plastic that has the feel of the original fabrics and is much more durable.
His sense of direction transcends the maps on which it is based. Friends tell of his uncanny ability to know where he is, where he is going, and how to get there. When traveling familiar streets, he will often say to the driver of the car, “Turn right at the next corner where the light is.” Or, chatting with a person from Omaha, Nebraska, he might comment, “You go north from there on Interstate 29 to Sioux Falls.”
In his early years Richard Cowan mapped a pattern for his life and he has not been dismayed by his blindness. “I can see a little,” he says of his world that is more gray than totally black. “In Los Angeles where I was born and grew up, I had the usual childhood experiences. My mother read aloud to me, and my father was very supportive, too. Through junior high I was in what they called ‘Sight Saving,’ a program that used large print and extra bright lights, but it was marginal for me. I could just barely read the materials. So when I went to high school, they switched me over to the braille program. I learned braille in one semester, but I didn’t use it much.”
While serving a Spanish-speaking mission in Texas and New Mexico, however, he changed his mind. “Here was a tool to use, and I wasn’t using it,” he says. “So I jumped in with both feet and learned Grade 3, a shorthand braille that students use to write faster.”
An immediate result of that decision came when he was called upon to debate with a minister from another faith. He had his shorthand scriptures in his lap while they were talking. The minister finally conceded that Elder Cowan certainly knew his scriptures. “Yes,” Richard agreed with a smile. “I have them at my fingertips.”
Another important decision that enhanced the texture of his life-map was made during a district conference led by his mission president and Elder Clifford E. Young, a visiting General Authority. In that meeting, Elder Cowan felt so strongly the influence of the Holy Spirit that he asked himself, “What could I do for a vocation that would bring me in contact with this kind of feeling?”
The answer, for him, was immediate: “Teach religion at BYU.” From that afternoon, he knew where he was going. Two years later, he married Dawn Houghton, who had served in the same mission. During the next three years in Palo Alto, with Dawn reading to him, he earned his master’s and doctor’s degrees in history at Stanford University.
In 1961 Richard Cowan began teaching religion at BYU in spite of the fact that he had been told he couldn’t succeed as a teacher. Four years later he was chosen “Professor of the Year”; currently, he is in his twenty-seventh year there.
Brother Cowan is a prolific writer; he has written books, delivered scholarly papers, and produced articles many times for Church magazines. He is currently chairman of the Church Gospel Doctrine writing committee, which composes the lessons for that Sunday School course. “He is a delightful person to work with,” says one committee member.
Happily, his greatest fan—since the first moment she saw him—is his wife, Dawn. The Cowans have six children—four daughters and two sons.
Richard Cowan continues to pursue his goal of eternal life, guided by the map he saw clearly in his early years and to which he has remained committed.