- 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.

That’s when he called an old friend from the orphanage, Wilma Williamson, for help. Cowan knew she still lived in the area and thought Williamson would be able to locate his former eighth-grade teacher.

Considering Williamson is the executive director of Blakey Hall Retirement Community, where Harris now lives, it was a breeze.

Williamson and Cowan grew up together at the Elon orphanage, though she was a year ahead of Cowan in classes. She, too, remembers being in Harris‘ class, but Williamson didn’t know until recently that her friend wanted to reconnect with their teacher.

These days, Harris suffers from dementia, but she remembered Cowan as soon as she heard his voice on the phone.

“I gave her a call just before Thanksgiving,” Cowan said. He said he began by saying, “I only know you as Mrs. Irwin from 50 years ago,” to which Harris replied, “Donald Cowan.”

“She even said, ‘Do you still have blond hair?’ ” Cowan recalled. “Of course, it ain’t blond now,” he said, laughing.

“It just cracked me up the first time I talked to her,” said Cowan, who talked to Harris on the phone a few more times before flying up to visit on Dec. 30.

A week before his visit, Harris was already looking forward to seeing her former student.

“To have some student remember you - it’s very flattering,” she said. “I can’t wait to see him.”

Harris said she and her first husband were very fond of Cowan and took him under their wing.

“We would have him over for dinner,” Harris said. “There he was, living at Elon (Homes) without any parents,” and he still had impeccable manners, she said. “You wanted to do something special for him.”

Williamson weighed in on living at the orphanage and said it was no surprise that Harris had made such an impression on Cowan.

“We had to live such a rigid, strict life at (the) home. We felt relaxed enough to be a normal child,” at school, she said. “Our teachers were probably the most important (people) in our lives.”

“We had a good teacher-student relationship,” Harris said. “He could talk to me about things. He could open up.”

Fifty years later, the two are still talking - and they’ve got a lot to catch up on.

“It’s taken me 50 years to go to her and say, ‘Thank you,’ ” Cowan said. “And that’s what I intend to do.”


Information from: Times-News, https://www.thetimesnews.com



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