Miriam Cowden, second woman elected to Vanderbilt Board of Trust, dies at 88

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Miriam McGaw Cowden, whose practicality, generosity and diplomatic nature served her well during her more than 30 years on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, died Oct. 19 at Baptist Hospital following surgery.

“Miriam Cowden made a lasting mark on Vanderbilt first as a student and later as an active and engaged Board of Trust member,” said Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. “She took on tough issues and brought a fresh perspective that was much needed and well respected. The university has lost a dear friend.”

Mrs. Cowden was born in Nashville Nov. 2, 1919, to Bonnie Howard McGaw and Samuel Marshall McGaw. Having grown up in a neighborhood adjacent to the Vanderbilt campus, she had no doubt where she wanted to further her education after graduating from Hume-Fogg High School.

When Mrs. Cowden entered Vanderbilt in 1937, she was following in the footsteps of her four brothers, including Robert A. McGaw, who would later serve as secretary of the university. She became the only freshman to be named Miss Vanderbilt, and in her senior year she received the Lady of the Bracelet Award, the highest recognition given a female undergraduate. In 1991, she told a reporter for the Vanderbilt Register, “It was nice because the first one was voted on by the men, and the second by the women.”

In 1942, she married Dr. Frederic E. Cowden, who received his bachelor’s degree in 1939 and his medical degree in 1941, both from Vanderbilt.

First elected to the board in 1974 as the second female member, she served as
its secretary from 1980 until 1991. In 2003 she was designated a Trustee Emerita. She
also chaired the Student Affairs Committee during a time when students began to exert themselves more in the affairs of the university. “Being asked to serve on the Board of Trust was an honor she treasured,” her daughter, Mary Brockman, said.

In 1991 Cowden was awarded the Mary Jane Werthan Award for outstanding contributions to women at Vanderbilt. The award is named for the first woman to serve on the board.

“Miriam McGaw Cowden was the best representative of Nashville and Vanderbilt women of her generation,” said Susan Ford Wiltshire, professor of classics, emerita. “She was spunky, smart, fun and simply not afraid of taking risks. With charm and canniness, she helped bring lasting change to Vanderbilt, especially for women students and faculty.”

Wiltshire was among a group of women faculty members who organized in the early 1980s in an attempt to increase the percentage of women with tenure on the Vanderbilt faculty. She recalled Miriam Cowden and Mary Jane Werthan inviting members of the group to meet with them and lending support to the group’s efforts. “It felt … like we were standing out at the end of a very frail limb, and Miriam and Mary Jane joined us.”

As chair of the Student Affairs Committee, she addressed such topics as the need for a student recreation center, minority student affairs and women’s issues. As a board of trust member, she served as an active participant and leader in student body life.

In addition to her involvement with Vanderbilt, Mrs. Cowden contributed to the Nashville community and held positions in a wide variety of organizations. She served as president of the United Methodist Women of West End Church, president of the Nashville Academy of Medicine Auxiliary and president of the Nashville League of Women Voters.

A memorial service will be held Thursday, Oct. 23, at West End United Methodist Church. Visitation with the family will begin at 3 p.m. in Reed Hall, followed by the service at 5 p.m. in the Sanctuary. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to West End United Methodist Church, Vanderbilt University Library or the charity of your choice.

Survivors include her husband, Dr. Frederic E. Cowden; their daughters, Louise (Mrs. Joseph D. Kitchell), Mary (Mrs. Henry W. Brockman); grandchildren, Bonnie Brockman Cross, Will Brockman, Rob Braden, Lauren Kitchell Brinkley, Steve Cowden, Mark Cowden, John Cowden, and four great-grandchildren. Her beloved son, Fred Cowden, Jr. died Nov. 26, 1996.

Media Contact: Elizabeth Latt, (615) 322-NEWS

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