Local teacher, columnist retires pen at age 92

Robert McGowan in his home office, 2014
Robert McGowan, longtime Bartlett Express columnist, is relaxing in his home office now that he’s retired from more than 1,100 consecutive weeks of newspaper column writing.
Photo by Graham Sweeney

After 31 years of teaching college students at the University of Memphis, former Fayette County resident Robert McGowan spent another 23 educating local newspaper readers with his always informative weekly columns.

Now, at the age of 92, McGowan has decided to retire his dated computer after more than 1,100 consecutive weeks of writing.
“I never missed a week,” McGowan recalled. “That’s really something.”

Those who have read his columns throughout the years are well acquainted with McGowan’s challenging childhood in Paris, Tenn., during the Great Depression, his sobering experiences in Patton’s Third Army during World War II and his devoted enthusiasm for American naturalists like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Those who studied under him in the Depart-ment of Biological Sciences know McGowan as a bright professor with a reputation for capturing the imagination of his students.
“He was a wonderful teacher,” said Ellen McGowan, his wife of 70 years. “His courses changed the way many students looked at the world.”

Hired by Memphis State in 1949, McGowan taught subject matter like botany and ornithology. He even created the school’s first general ecology course.

“I wrote the manual,” he said.

Proof of McGowan’s reputation as a passionate teacher who was always at ease in the classroom remains evident to this day.
“Former students still approach him when we are out,” Ellen said. “They say how much he influenced their lives.”

It wasn’t just the classroom where McGowan felt at home. He fondly remembers hundreds of field trips to Reelfoot Lake and Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park to teach field botany and ecology.

During his tenure at the University of Memphis, McGowan received the Distinguished Teaching Award and the Distin-guished Lifetime Service Award from the Tennessee Environmental Education Association. He also helped raise his children on 25 acres of land just outside of Collierville.

Before leaving his teaching job in 1980, McGowan bought 100 acres of rural land in Perry County on which to retire.

While McGowan now admittedly struggles at times to find the right word during the course of a conversation, he can still remember exactly how much he paid for that property more than 35 years ago.

“It was $2,700,” he recalled. “Can you believe that? And we paid $6.40 in taxes every year.”

And those aren’t the only intricate details that McGowan can conjure to mind in a moment’s notice. He remembers exactly how much money he made at his first job in 1938. Perhaps more impressive, he recalls how much his mother made, a knack that was likely born from a childhood suspended in the uncertainty of the Great Depression.

Born in Paris, Tenn., in 1922, McGowan recalls a relatively pleasant childhood during his early years.

“Before 1929,” he said, “everyone in this country thought everything was rosy.”

The son of a “railroad man,” McGowan lived a comfortable and stable life with his older brother, Hugh, and mother, Elizabeth. He even had a pony.

“Then,” McGowan remembered, “BANGO! The Great Depression hits and my father loses his job.”

Like many Americans, the McGowan family lost their home and car. The family relocated to Paducah, Ky., in 1936. However, within a month the Ohio River flood of 1937 forced the family back to Paris, where they stayed at a Methodist minister’s house. McGowan’s mother cooked to pay for boarding.

Tragedy struck again when McGowan’s father died of influenza encephalitis at the age of 52.

“That left my mother without a thing except her wonderful character and determination,” McGowan said.

Elizabeth finally found work at Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., as a house mother. She lived in the girls’ dormitory while Robert took up residence in the boys’ dorm.

“We got room and board and $8 a month,” he recalled. “Those were hard times.”

Although only a sophomore in high school, McGowan soon found work himself.

“I remember walking back to the dorm one night after work during the Christmas holiday,” he said. “I passed all of these lovely decorations. When I got back to the dorm everyone was gone for the holidays. I walked into an empty room. I have to admit, I felt sorry for myself.”

After graduating high school, McGowan soon found himself enrolled at Lambuth.

While passionate about literature and biology, McGowan decided to pursue a career in the latter after taking an organic evolution course taught by an exceptional professor named Mr. Oxley.

But before he could finish his college degree, McGowan, then 21, was selected by the U.S. Army and soon found himself in the European Theater of World War II, where his division would eventually help liberate a German concentration camp.

He returned to Tennessee in 1946, finished his degree at Lambuth and was hired by the Tennessee Department of Conservation as a naturalist for the State Parks Division.

“I was the first professional naturalist hired by the state of Tennessee,” he recalled.

He soon took a job with the University of Memphis and spent the next three decades flourishing as a professor.

Ten years after his retirement, McGowan, then living in Perry County received a visit from the editor of the Buffalo River Review.

“Well, he asked if I would be interested in contributing to the paper,” McGowan remembered.

McGowan accepted the challenge. Many of his earliest columns focused on his experiences out in nature on his property in Perry County.

Much like his heroes, Thoreau, Emerson and Charles Darwin, McGowan wrote about his observations in nature.

Robert and Ellen moved to Fayette County in 1998 after Robert experienced a detached retina, which eventually resulted in blindness in his left eye.

“We really wanted to be closer to our grandchildren,” Ellen recalled.

In Somerville, McGowan began writing for more weekly newspapers, like the Fayette County Review, Collierville Independent and Bartlett Express.

His columns became reflective, sometimes political, and always informative.

A few years ago, the McGowans again moved to be closer to family, this time to Bartlett.

Without the vast rural fields and forests of western Tennessee to write about, McGowan’s columns began to focus on his other passion, literature.

McGowan spent the next several years plucking information from his library for loyal readers to digest.

“I’m not a great scholar or anything like that,” he said. “But I read quite a bit.”

Now, having written thousands of columns and even a book (Sounds of Carter Creek), McGowan is again content to walk away from his second career as an educator.

“I don’t know that I would have been happy doing anything else,” McGowan said.

“He’s a teacher,” Ellen agreed.

Written by Graham Sweeney, special to the Express. Contact him at (901) 433-9138 or via email to graham.sweeney@journalinc.com. McGowan may be contacted at (901) 828-6039 or via email to ellen1324@gmail.com.