Northern Lights

John Cowles Jr.: Dreaming big

  • Updated: December 29, 2012 - 9:18 AM

John Cowles Jr., 82, learned the newspaper business from his father, but left his mark as a civic visionary and arts patron.

John Cowles Jr. arrived with great difficulty at the Guthrie.

"He was in a wheelchair, on oxygen," said son Jay Cowles. "I was his driver; my mother was there and he sat in the front row."

Cowles would live only another five weeks. But in the chill of that February afternoon, he was still invested in his city and its future -- even if he wouldn't be a part of it.

Business and civic leaders were gathered at the Guthrie, which Cowles had helped found 50 years earlier, to consider the Minneapolis Downtown Council's vision for 2025. Freelance writer Stephen Berg, who had authored the report, was surprised to see him enter the lobby. In retrospect, Berg said, he shouldn't have been.

"He loved his hometown," Berg said. "He wanted it to be the best."

Like his father and namesake before him, John Cowles was blessed with an independent, curious spirit. He gave himself permission to dream and imagine -- and then build concretely on those dreams. As publisher of this newspaper, he wooed Tyrone Guthrie to establish a theater that put Minneapolis on the cultural map. Later, he spearheaded the effort to build the Metrodome.

Cowles loosened his tie after a boardroom coup removed him from the daily news operation. He expanded his vision, considering the forest of possibilities rather than the trees of daily business. He studied farming, taught aerobics, launched a women's professional softball league, encouraged artists -- giving his name to a performance center in Minneapolis -- and famously danced nude onstage. And thought nothing of it.

"He had pride, but no ego, no requirement to be lauded for his work," said Sam Grabarski, former head of the Downtown Council.

Cowles was emblematic of a generation of civic leaders who pondered deeply what values would shape this metropolitan area to best effect. He dared to let his vision soar.

Grabarski was there that afternoon at the Guthrie, quietly grateful that his old friend still shared responsibility for the promise of downtown Minneapolis.

"He was glad to think Downtown 2025 would bring new opportunities."

GRAYDON ROYCE

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