Richard Cowan: Man of Uncommon Vision

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.

[photo] Photography by Jed A. Clark

Cynthia M. Gardner teaches Spiritual Living in the Provo (Utah) Twenty-fifth Ward. She and her husband also work in the Provo Temple.

Glen L. Taggart: Educator with a Global View

Utah State University president emeritus Glen L. Taggart had an important appointment on that Saturday afternoon and could not accept the invitation to join other university officials and guests for a golf game.

As the golfers eyed their next strokes on one of the greens, they were unprepared for the sight of President Taggart floating by on an inner tube in the canal that flows out of Logan Canyon through the golf course. The university president simply waved and smiled as he and his daughter, Elaine, tubed by.

“He’s not one to break his word to his children if something comes up,” says his wife, Phyllis.

Glen L. Taggart, who has served as president of two universities on opposite sides of the globe, is not one to break his word to anyone. Such integrity has helped guide Brother Taggart in his pioneering role of encouraging higher education in underdeveloped countries.

“Integrity is the key to his success,” says Glen’s brother, Spencer. “Glen has built it into his character and hasn’t asked anything of others that he wouldn’t ask of himself.”

It would be difficult to separate Brother Taggart’s global view of education from his commitment to gospel ideals, both of which were nurtured in his youth. Born 16 January 1914, the youngest of eight children, Glen grew up on a farm in Lewiston, Utah, where his parents instilled in him the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“My father was very Christian,” Glen recounts warmly. “He owned a home in Lewiston that he rented to a family that didn’t have much money. Every Christmas Father would go over and give them the rent for the previous year.”

In 1933, Glen began serving a three-and-one-half-year mission in Czechoslovakia, an experience that would later play a major part in charting his professional life.

A year after returning to Utah State University, Glen married Phyllis Paulsen, and they moved to Madison, Wisconsin, so he could work on his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. A language professor, not believing that Glen knew Czech well enough to pass the graduate language requirement, opened an old book of Czech poetry and told Glen to translate it. The returned missionary so dumbfounded the professor by his fluency that the teacher asked him to be an assistant in the department.

After obtaining his degree, Brother Taggart traveled extensively in underdeveloped countries, helping develop agricultural programs. Among other projects, he worked in Ecuador to improve the production of abaca, a banana plant, the fibers of which are used to make ropes. In El Salvador, he helped to improve food production.

Then, in 1953, he accepted a position as a professor at Michigan State University. Within two years, he was appointed MSU’s first dean of international studies and programs, the first such position in the United States. In that capacity, he helped to establish five new universities abroad and to transform more than twenty others into more effective institutions.

As Dr. Taggart sought to establish programs of higher learning in developing nations, he respected the distinctness of the cultures in which he worked. His strategy was always to set up an institution that would be responsive to the needs of a particular country rather than setting up a typically American institution.

Partly because of his sensitivity to their culture, the regents at the University of Nigeria sent Dr. Taggart a telegram in 1964, asking him to be head of that institution. For two years Dr. Taggart’s innovations stabilized that fledgling university, utilizing, among others, twenty-five Peace Corps educators, “who turned out to be an exceptional group of teachers,” he remembers. In 1966, when the Taggarts left, there was a graduating class of 565 who received degrees, and thirty-seven received scholarships for study in the United States. One student was awarded a Rhodes scholarship.

Then, in July 1968, Glen Taggart “went home” to Cache Valley to be the president of Utah State University.

Paul Larsen, former Michigan State University faculty member and current USU vice-president of extension, says, “Glen Taggart brought Utah State University from being a good regional college into a fine university with a strong research program and a substantial national and international reputation.”

Brother Taggart has now retired after eleven years, but he remains actively involved in promoting education around the world. Currently he chairs a Kellogg Foundation task force whose purpose is to develop a university in Costa Rica.

In addition to his worldwide forum, he believes education must also be a family affair. His favorite place for discussion was with his wife and three children around the dinner table. Phyllis says, “Sometimes the dishes didn’t get done when they were supposed to, but Glen learned about the children’s friends and school activities.”

Brother Taggart had grown up on dinner-table discussions that had been “crucial in the development of our family, because very seldom did we leave these discussions with a point unresolved or an element of conflict still persisting. It was good practice in learning to resolve conflict,” he says.

Lives of such achievement are rarely without considerable trials. Glen and Phyllis Taggart’s faith has helped them cope with the sorrows that have come. In 1969, just one year after they returned to Logan, their oldest son, Steve, died of Hodgkin’s disease. Their only daughter, Elaine, who had been plagued with health problems since her teens, died during a liver transplant operation in 1982.

Brother Taggart considers the plan of salvation “a highly motivating belief,” which gives “real purpose for achievement in any field.”

Though they have lived around the world, Glen and Phyllis Taggart are not of the world. Their understanding of the gospel and their global view of education enable them to keep the world in perspective.

[photo] Photography by Philip S. Shurtleff

Nanette Larsen, a writer/editor for the Utah Travel Council, teaches Relief Society in the Capitol Hill Second Ward, Salt Lake Stake.