Donald Bruce Cowan stood on a slight rise of empty plains southwest of Wichita Falls one early spring morning in 1960. Heavy construction equipment soon would begin etching the footprint of a new high school into the red clay soil where he stood. Accompanied only by sighing wind, the trill of meadowlarks and a creaky old pump jack, this rookie music teacher stood listening to a dream.
Born in Fargo, ND, Don Cowan grew up in Moorhead, MN, literally in the shadow of Concordia College, home of Concordia Choir, the House of Paul J. Christiansen and a bastion of the Lutheran a cappella choral tradition established in this country by Paul's legendary immigrant Norwegian father, F. Melius Christiansen.
A sneak peek of what was to come emerged at Moorhead High School where Don Cowan was student director of a 120-voice choir. Cowan was graduated from Moorhead High in May of 1950. North Korea invaded South Korea that June, and Cowan enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where he was assigned to the 761st Air Force Band at Sheppard Air Force Base, Wichita Falls, TX. Initially assigned as a clarinetist, he worked his way through three dance bands attached to SAFB to play alto saxophone with the top band, the Airliners.
The Airliners played for USO dances at the Women's YWCA in town, and Cowan received $9 a night for the 4-hour gigs. He would find something much more valuable than the cash before the last dance.
Barbara June Humphries. A dark-haired beauty with poise, grace and moves on the dance floor that were impossible not to notice. And Cowan noticed. Every night that Barbara June came to the club, Cowan noticed little else. But what chance did a tall, skinny kid with a goofy grin have with a beauty like her? As it happened, Barbara June's best friend was married to a fellow saxophone player in the Airliners. Cowan's colleague told him that his wife had told him that Barbara June had said, "You know, Don Cowan is kind of cute, don't you think?"
Did not take long after that for Cowan to take a break from the band and ask June for a dance.
Cowan's enlistment ended shortly before Christmas, 1954. He took his honorable discharge and headed home to Moorhead but soon discovered that his heart had failed to make the trip. Before the snows had begun to melt Cowan returned to Wichita Falls and took Barbara June for his bride.
He registered at Midwestern University to seek a degree in music education. Signing up at the band table, he was told he would have to march. Cowan told the nice lady he had spent the last four years marching. He really did not care to march. The nice lady told him he would have to march if he joined the band program.
Cowan smiled, turned on his heel and crossed the hall to the choir registration table.
He earned a Bachelor Of Music Education with a major in choral music, minor in voice, in 1958. The Wichita Falls Independent School District immediately offered a position teaching choir at Reagan Junior High School. The following year he established a choir program at the new Barwise Junior High School, with a brand new high school waiting just around the corner.
S.H. Rider High School opened for classes in the fall of 1961. Cowan composed words and music for the school's Alma Mater and wrote the music for the Fight Song. His first choir department consisted of 59 students in two choirs founded in the Lutheran a cappella tradition. One afternoon while perusing sheet music at Max Kruetz House of Music, he noticed a sign over a bin that read "Greatest Choir Ever". Cowan asked the late Max Kruetz if he might buy the sign. After hearing why the choir director wanted it, Kruetz gave the sign to him.
The next morning students noisily settled into the choir room. "Shut up, spit out your gum and sit down!" Cowan called out with what would become a signature call to order. "See that sign?" Cowan said, pointing to the new sign placed upside down in the window of his office. "When I decide you have earned the right to call yourselves the 'Greatest Choir Ever', I'll turn the sign right side up."
For 32 years Rider's elite A Cappella Choirs strove to turn that sign over. In the course of that quest they recorded 30-odd albums and performed in Washington, D.C., the State Capital in Austin, Mexico City and the major cathedrals of Europe.
Don Cowan touched and shaped the lives of nearly 3,000 students in his three decades at Rider. He still considers alumni of his choirs his "kids". June 25, 2011, a bunch of Cowan's Kids will return to the Memorial Auditorium stage as the Donald B. Cowan Legacy Choir to sing some two-hours' worth of Cowan's favorite selections just One More Time!
For more information on this historic concert please visit our website LegacyChoir.org.