“Richard Cowan: Man of Uncommon Vision,” Tambuli, Apr. 1988, 22
Because he is blind, when Richard Cowan plans to go anywhere he hasn’t been before, he usually makes a special map of the area. He calls them “raised-line maps,” and they are ingenious guides to everything. On his maps, highways are “drawn” with cord, streets with thin thread, bodies of water and parks with different kinds of fabrics. All points of interest are different to the touch.
Brother Cowan, a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 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. I 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 are much more durable.
His sense of direction surpasses 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 street light is.” Or, chatting with a visitor from another state he will comment on the direction to take to get from one point to another.
His wife, Dawn, worries because he insists on covering familiar territory alone at a fast walking pace. “He won’t use a cane,” she says. “He won’t have a dog to guide him. He never slows down. I’m afraid he’ll come to something unexpected and run into it.”
In his early years Richard Cowan mapped a pattern for his life and has not been discouraged by his blindness. “I can see a little,” he says of his world that is more gray than totally black. “In Los Angeles, California, 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. In my early teenage years I was in what they called ‘Sight Saving,’ a program that used large print for books and extra bright lights to see by, but it wasn’t much use for me. I could just barely read the materials. So when I went to high school, they put me into the Braille program. I had one semester of that, but I didn’t like it very much.”
The outline for the map of his life was drawn when he received his patriarchal blessing at fifteen. He was promised that he would be sealed to a fair daughter of Zion and would write and raise his voice in declaring salvation.
Until his call to the Spanish American Mission in 1953, he had scorned the use of Braille, but in the mission field, “I decided that was sort of foolish. Here was a tool to use, and I wasn’t using it. So I worked hard 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. Brother Cowan 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, the 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 living that would bring me in contact with this kind of feeling?”
The answer, for him, was immediate: “Teach religion at Brigham Young University.” From that afternoon, he knew where he was going. Upon returning home from his mission, he waited a year and two months for the “fair daughter of Zion”—Sister Dawn Houghton. During the next three years in Palo Alto, California, 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 Brigham Young University in spite of the fact that he had been told he wouldn’t succeed as a teacher. Four years later he was elected by the students as the Professor of the Year; currently, he is in his twenty-eighth year there.
Brother Cowan is a busy writer; he has written books, delivered lectures on various Church-related topics, and produced articles many times for Church magazines, beginning with one he wrote while on his honeymoon. 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. “His deep understanding of the gospel doesn’t keep his sense of humor from showing.”
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.