Amherst Magazine
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DWIGHT COWAN (1935-2003)

In his “In Memory” piece for Dwight Cowan, John Davenport wrote, “Dwight was the first classmate I got to know at the start of freshman year. He had effortless charm and a certain sense of fun and lightness of being that immediately erased all doubts I may have had about whether I was going to enjoy college life.”

Dwight was a highly principled, somewhat irreverent, independent thinker, challenging every convention that ever was and rooting out pretension, pomposity and conceit wherever he found it. This trait would get him in trouble at the stock brokerages where he was employed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when he refused, against his own economic self-interest, to peddle initial public offerings he judged overpriced or too risky.

He was also an entrepreneur, starting with a very profitable small loan business (he called it loan sharking) tiding his fellow army enlisted men over to the next payday in Thule, Greenland. Much later in life, he and his wife, Laurie, founded a successful business, Brinkerhoff Lamps and Shades, designing, making and selling unusual, creative lamps made from musical instruments with hand-painted musical-theme shades.

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Dwight’s description of this venture in our 40th reunion book bears repeating. “The experience of running my own business has been a truly liberating event. You are the author of your own disasters and sometimes successes. Office politics have disappeared as well as the dreaded annual performance reviews, only to be replaced by the problem – whom do we now blame for mistakes?”

Dwight was a gifted natural athlete. He was a track star at Amherst, specializing in the high jump and pole vault, who won many meets with his unique one-shoe-off, one-shoe-on high jump technique. (Whether this had anything to do with him owning and wearing for four years one pair of sneakers, without socks, in all seasons, has never been proved.) As the Aqua Show’s clown diver, he brilliantly combined his athletic gifts with his sense of the comic, leaping off the high dive platform with a hilarious, carefree, “what me worry?” air.

Dwight would tell hilarious stories about his adventures and misadventures, one of the best of which involved a summer job working on a crew painting guardrails along a highway in Vermont. Along came a Greyhound bus, and Dwight could not resist sticking out his paintbrush and adding a bright yellow stripe to the bus’s otherwise staid markings. Word eventually got back to the crew foreman, who instinctively sensed who the culprit must have been and ended Dwight’s highway department career on the spot.

We asked Laurie for some thoughts about Dwight. She, in turn, sent us some things their daughter, Alison, wrote in a special book for Christmas last year. “They all make me smile,” Laurie said. “It’s the best present I ever got.”

"Wrapping Presents: Of course, no one will ever forget Dwight Billings Cowan's phenomenal wrapping techniques. His half-newspaper, onequarter wrapping paper, one-quarter of the box showing-wrapping concoctions. And let us not forget the year that he gave himself a present, put it under the tree, labeled it ‘To Dwight, From Dwight’ and proceeded to thank himself after opening it."

"Fashion Sense: A lot comes to mind when I think about Dad's clothing: the fur coat, the broken 100-year old shoes he wouldn't throw away, the two-tone pants (yellow and olive), his tattered sweatshirts, and his endless supply of holey underwear."

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In lieu of a picture of Dwight,
here’s a sample of a Dwight-Laurie
creation, an example of “music
to your eyes.”

"From-Our-Forest Christmas Trees: We can’t forget how persistent Dad was about chopping down our own trees. The ornaments weighed down the dinky little branches, then we hung the big outside lights on it anyway to add even more weight to the flimsy little Charlie Brown Xmas tree. Our Christmases surely never looked commercial or like Martha Stewart trees. They were more sincere and had character – like Dad.”

Dwight married Laurie Chisolm in 1986, and in 1989, shortly after their children Allison and Zachary were born, moved from New York City to the lovely old farmhouse in Shaftsbury, Vt., where Dwight had grown up, and where he died at peace in the bosom of his beloved family.

Dwight Billings Cowan died of bladder cancer Dec. 8, 2003.

(Ed. note: We asked Laurie for a picture of Dwight. Here is what she said: “Just tell everyone that Dwight was beautiful to the end. His kids are GORGEOUS (both tall, thin and really, truly beautiful says the non-prejudiced mother). Plus, anyway, besides, whatever – Dwight NEVER smiled in a photo unless he didn't know it was being taken. That shouldn't surprise anyone who knew him. He was truthful to the end. He smiled only when something amused him. And for him, amusement was not in having his photo being taken.”)

We lost Dwight Cowan to bladder cancer on December
8, 2003. He will be sorely missed by everyone who
knew him.

Dwight was the first classmate I got to know at the start of freshman year. He had effortless charm and a certain sense of fun and lightness of being that immediately erased all doubts I may have had about whether I was going to enjoy college life. Dwight made an extraordinary number of long-lasting and close friendships at Amherst and afterwards. (When I moved to New York City in 1962, I was immediately swept up into the wide circle of friends he had assembled during the prior two years, through whom I ultimately met my wife). He would tell hilarious stories about his adventures and misadventures, one of the best of which involved a summer job working on a crew painting guardrails along a highway in Vermont. Along came a Greyhound bus, and Dwight could not resist sticking out his paintbrush and adding a bright yellow stripe to the bus’s otherwise staid markings. Word eventually got back to the crew foreman, who instinctively sensed who the culprit must have been and ended Dwight’s highway department career on the spot.

Dwight was a gifted natural athlete. He was a track star at Amherst, specializing in the high jump and pole vault and winning many meets with his unique one-shoe-off, one-shoe-on high jump technique. As the Aqua Show’s clown diver he brilliantly combined his athletic gifts with his sense of the comic, leaping off the high dive platform with a hilarious, carefree “what me worry?” air.

Dwight was a highly principled, somewhat irreverent, independent thinker, challenging every convention that ever was and rooting out pretension, pomposity, and conceit wherever he found it. This trait would get him in trouble at the stock brokerages where he was employed in the late 60s and early 70s when he refused, against his own economic self-interest, to peddle initial public offerings he judged overpriced or too risky. He was also an entrepreneur, starting with a very profitable small loan business (he called it loan sharking) tiding his fellow army enlisted men over to the next payday in Thule, Greenland. Much later in life, he and Laurie founded a successful business, Brinkerhoff Lamps and Shades, designing, making and selling unusual, creative lamps made from musical instruments, old plumbing fixtures, and the like.

Dwight was born on October 16, 1935, in New York City to Richard B. (Amherst ’23) and Elizabeth Brinkerhoff (Billings) Cowan. He married Laurie Chisolm in 1986, and in 1989, shortly after their children Allison and Zachary were born, they moved  from New York City to the lovely old farmhouse in Shaftsbury, VT, where Dwight had grown up, and  where he died at peace in the bosom of his beloved  family. John Bischof, Amos Hostetter, Steve Swope,  and Sally and I attended the memorial service for  Dwight at his and Laurie’s church in East Arlington on  December 15, 2004, and extended the Class’s  condolences to Laurie and the children.

—John L. Davenport ’58

 

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