Bob Cowan left home when he was nineteen, and for three years he crisscrossed the Australian continent in his small, yellow sports car. Like many young Australians, he felt the urge to see something of the vast continent he called home.
In the three years that followed, he traveled around the country twice, working in twenty-six different jobs. But the traveling also brought him a blessing he hadn’t counted on—he became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
His wandering life “was marvelous at first,” Bob now says. “It was all I ever wanted to do—travel, see Australia, not be worried about ties to other people or commitments.” His system was to drive until he found a locality that interested him, work for a while, and then move on.
But two things happened during his travels which were to have a profound influence on his life.
Working as a post mortem (autopsy) attendant in a hospital, he came face to face with death for the first time. It was a sobering experience for a young man who had felt until then that life meant having fun.
Some time later, driving through Townsville in north Queensland, Bob witnessed the aftermath of the cyclone which savaged the city in 1972. “The destruction was incredible. I remember just sitting in my car and thinking there had to be more purpose to life—something more.
“I had seen everything I ever longed to see. But at the end of it there was nothing. Just a feeling of emptiness.
“I remember saying a silent prayer as I sat in my car: ‘God, if you are there, do with me whatever you need to do.’”
The following day, Bob Cowan parked his sports car on beautiful paradisiacal beach outside Cairns, and then found he couldn’t restart it. Waiting for a mechanic to bring help, he began to sculpt in the clean, moist sand. Soon he was approached by a woman who complimented him on his talent, and then led the conversation into a gospel-related discussion.
“She told me that the local branch of her church was having a cruise on a boat the next day, and asked me if I’d like to come along,” Bob says. “I knew nothing about this woman or the church she talked about, but as I was sitting on the back of the tow truck, with my car being taken back to town, I received a strong spiritual witness that this invitation was the answer to my prayer.”
At the waterside dock the next day, the missionaries—clearly advised in advance by the sister who had spoken to him—waved him to a stop in his repaired sports car. Bob joined the Church group on the boat. “All the time I was on the boat, I had the distinct impression that I was at home,” he says.
The missionaries did not go on the cruise, but the next day they gave Bob a Book of Mormon and urged him to read it.
Bob’s plans were to travel on to the remote northern Australian town of Weipa, so he took the book with him and read it from cover to cover—mostly in the tiny, two-man aluminum hut where he was staying. Deeply responsive to what he read, Bob knew he wanted to be baptized.
He flew back to Cairns for several eventful days. The elders taught him all six discussions in a single night; the following day he was baptized, and he attended Church on Sunday.
Returning immediately to the isolated town of Weipa, Bob was unable to attend church for another two years. “I was excited to be a member,” he says, “but I knew very little about the Church. I knew nothing about the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, or the history of the Church.”
But in 1974, two years after becoming a member and now aged twenty-four, Bob was sent to Brisbane by the company for which he was working. Promptly looking up the address of the Church in the local phone book, he began attending regularly. He acquired gospel knowledge rapidly, and little more than a year later departed on a mission to Perth—on the other side of the continent.
Soon after returning from his mission, he was called into the presidency of the Australia Brisbane Mission, and a year later as a counselor in the Brisbane Australia Stake presidency. He has served in that position for more than seven years.
President Cowan recalls his earlier life with some wonder.
“I have never been able to locate the sister who first invited me to that Church social event, but it was the moment that changed my life.”