Monday, October 12, 2015

Article 1: Gerard Aaron Cowan



My father, Gerard Aaron Cowan ("Jerry"), was born in New York City in 1908 and was raised in a Jewish New York family with money.  His father was a tailor, and his mother was a dress designer.  They owned and lived in a five-story brownstone building on the upper west side of Manhattan, and a 1910 census documents that my father, his parents, two sisters, two or three cousins and three servants lived in the building.  It appears that my grandparents separated some time in the 1920's, when my grandfather moved to San Francisco to manage a clothing store.  Both of them died in the 1930's.

In the 1990's, I was very fortunate to find over 2,000 family letters in old boxes saved by one of my aunts.  Although the exact reasons are not ever mentioned in those letters, I surmise that the Great Depression and poor investments were the primary causes of the loss of wealth in my father's family.  Prior to 1930, there were many references to vacations, including extended trips to Europe, and purchases of gifts.  Beginning in the early 1930's, all of that disappeared and was replaced by frequent requests for small loans and references to good deals on small purchases.  Such was probably the case for millions of families in the United States at that time.

I have several pictures of my father as a young man.  In all of them he was well-dressed and "dapper."  He looked very much like Humphrey Bogart, with the same self-assurance and carriage.  One early picture shows him in riding togs atop a handsome horse.  He was always the cosmopolitan man-about-town.

I know my father did not attend college, and there's some question about whether he even finished high school.  He was, however, really intelligent and an entrepreneur at heart.  All of what he did in his life was self-taught, for he was a voracious reader and resourceful dreamer.  During his life he chose to work in building supplies and kitchen designing, and at least three times he built his own small company.  He was an incredible draftsman and could design an entire kitchen in under ten minutes.  As a young kid, I saw him do that many times, and I still have his drafting board, which he built for himself almost 60 years ago.  He was also a born salesman; he could sell ice to an Eskimo.

My father was 60 years old when he died of colon cancer.  I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college.  All of my summer jobs were spent doing work at his little building supply company, where he taught me accounting, inventory, draftsmanship, sales and hard, physical labor.  Those were great summers, except for the last one, when I ran the business and visited him in the hospital twice a day.  My father insisted that I return to college at the end of that summer for my sophomore year; another person he hired would step in to run the company for a few months.

I really had one purpose in mind when I returned to college.  I wanted to be able to tell my father, before he died, what I would be doing for the rest of my life.  I had been a math major, but was tiring of that, so I was taking my first computer science course and continuing with my English literature studies.  I would either pursue a career in computers or become an English professor.  Although I loved reading, I fell in love with computer programming, and I told him of my decision a couple weeks before he died, on December 4, 1968.

I could list dozens of things he taught me, and they would probably be very similar to what other boys learned from their fathers.  My great love of sports, especially golf and baseball, came from him.  But beyond the normal things a father teaches a kid, he taught me, by example, how to conduct oneself in life.  I wanted to be like him, so I constantly observed him.  I would say that he was the greatest influence on my life, and thus, the most remarkable person.

My father pushed me to think analytically.  He never told me I had to be anything, but he gave me the analytical tools to succeed in whatever I chose to do.  He taught my sister and me to play chess when I was 7 years old (and my sister was 6 years old).  He began teaching me math shortcuts and puzzles when I was 8 years old, such as how to multiply two numbers in the teens (e.g., 19 x 17) "in my head," without the use of paper and pencil.  He was equally good at both deductive and inductive reasoning, and, by his example, I became good at both.  He constantly challenged me to be analytical.

My father pushed me to work hard.  No one in my life ever pushed me to work as hard as my father did.  When kids were working 20 hours a week at summer jobs, I was working 50 hours and getting paid for 40 hours, at $2 an hour.  Most of it was physical labor, like unloading a semi truck filled with boxed kitchen cabinets.  He didn't have to tell me twice to do things, because he worked harder and longer than I did.  Instead, he would bring me a soda pop (temperatures were often in the 90's) and tell me to rest for awhile, then get back to work.

It was natural that my discipline for physical labor carried over into my school work.  Working three or four hours on homework was nothing compared with unloading a hot truck for eight hours.  School was a vacation from summers in that respect.

My father pushed me to take on responsibilities.  Where my mother wanted to do things for me, my father wanted me to do things for myself or for others.  When given a task by my father, I was never asked whether it was done yet.  He knew I was focused on finishing the task, so he gave me greater and greater responsibilities.  On the day I returned home from my freshman year of college, I was told that he was dying of cancer and that I would have to run the family business for the summer.  He gave me his car and asked me to drive him to the hospital.

Because of his great push, both direct and subtle, for me to take on increased responsibilities, I never thought that I couldn't do something when I was growing up.  I learned that from him, too.  There was no room for self-doubt or excuses, because I didn't see either in him.  (I did go through years of self-doubt after his death, and I was pushed by other remarkable people to get past that, as I address in other articles.)

My father pushed me to be organized.  My friends know me as someone who is organized to a fault.  I get that from my father.  In running a small kitchen business, he knew where every piece of paper was, and he pushed me to be equally as organized.  Since every kitchen sale was a project, from initial design to delivery of the cabinets and appliances for installation, he pushed me to be project-oriented.  I am that way to this day.  He typically had 20 projects going at once, so he pushed me to multi-task like he did.

My father pushed me to practice kindness and be respectful.  As a young man, my father probably faced much more anti-Semitism than I ever did.  He changed the spelling of the family name from "Cowen" to "Cowan," to make it appear more Irish.  (His father had changed the spelling from "Cohen" to "Cowen.")  He believed, in business and in one's daily life, that you should practice kindness and respect all people.  I remember distinctly and was surprised at how highly he spoke of Dr. Martin Luther King, as he first made me aware of the civil rights problems in this country in the 1960's.

He was described by people as a "gentleman," but that really came down to treating people in an honorable, fair and caring way.  His deals were sealed by handshakes, and he taught me to address all people properly and with respect.  If I ever forgot to do that, I heard about it.

Although there were many times I saw his kindness and respect of others, no episode stays with me more than the time that he and I delivered a few kitchen cabinets to a retirement center.  He had donated the cabinets and could easily have dropped them off at the back of the building, but we parked and walked through the building from the front entrance.  He intentionally got several steps ahead of me and forced me to walk through the hallways alone, gazing at all of the seniors sitting in wheelchairs or using walkers.  It was an overwhelming experience.  When we were done delivering the cabinets, he said only, "I hope you were paying attention."  His intent, I'm sure, was to show me that seniors should not be put somewhere and forgotten.

And Finally.... It's easy to over-emphasize the influence that my father had in my life, but if anything, I have under-estimated in this article what he did for me.  My mother did a lot of things for us kids also--she taught us to read, got us to schools and took care of us--but she never pushed me the way my father did.  He changed the course of my life more than any other person has.

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