- Associated Press - Saturday, January 25, 2014

ELON, N.C. (AP) - Most everyone has at least one person in his or her life who’s made a lasting difference, either through their actions, teachings, support or encouragement.

Linda Harris of Elon was one such person and she never even knew it - until one of her former eighth-grade students called her out of the blue and told her he planned to fly in from Florida to visit the teacher that encouraged him to finish school and make something of himself.

Don Cowan spent his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s with his three brothers at Elon Homes & Schools for Children, which is now no longer an orphanage in Elon but a Charlotte nonprofit that still offers education and foster care programs.

“My mom had four boys,” Cowan recalled. “Being a single mom, she was unable to take care of (us).”

Though born in Portsmouth, Va., Cowan and his three brothers were sent to the orphanage to live and receive an education.

“We went to public school with everybody else,” said Cowan, who attended Elon Elementary School, which was right across the railroad tracks from the orphanage.

Cowan spent a couple extra years at the elementary level, because he failed the third and fifth grades and had to repeat. But he said it all “happened for a reason,” because it put him in Mrs. Linda Irwin’s eighth-grade class in 1963.

“Up until the eighth grade I didn’t want to be in school,” Cowan said. “I had no desire to learn.”

That all changed when he met Irwin - who eventually remarried and became Linda Harris.

Cowan said Harris had a way of teaching that made him want to listen, and she took the time to explain things and kept her students more involved with the lesson.

“She was direct and to-the-point, but she was patient,” he said. “Without Miss Irwin I don’t know if I would have finished school or not.”

But Cowan did just that, and he went on to achieve A’s and B’s at Western Alamance High School, where he later graduated.

After high school, Cowan enlisted in the United States Army and was deployed to Vietnam. When he returned to the U.S., he was Sgt. Donald Cowan and taught new soldiers at the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant School in Fort Jackson, S.C.

Cowan now lives with his wife in Odessa, Fla., but he hasn’t forgotten the teacher that inspired him to become something.

Cowan said he’s thought about Harris off-and-on all throughout his life, but back in October he got the itch to find her and contact her. He said he found an old listing for Harris and her second husband online, but a phone number wasn’t listed.

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