The University of Lynchburg community was saddened to learn about the death of Dr. Nancy Cowden on Saturday, Nov. 14. Cowden, professor of biology and associate director of the Westover Honors College, had taught at Lynchburg for more than 20 years.
Cowden earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Oberlin College and a master’s and PhD in botany from Miami University. At Lynchburg’s Claytor Nature Center, she was just the third curator of the 93-year-old Ramsey-Freer Herbarium, a botanical library with nearly 60,000 mounted plant specimens. She was particularly passionate about wild orchids.
Cowden was perhaps best known for her dedication to her students and colleagues at Lynchburg.
Ellen Druebbisch ’21, a Westover Honors Fellow, was a jittery freshman the first time she met Cowden, who was her advisor. It didn’t last long, though.
“For some reason, I was so nervous,” Druebbisch said. “I walked in and I think she could tell, so instead of talking about school and making my schedule, she offered me a piece of candy and chatted with me about my life and everything that didn’t pertain to academics.
“As a stressed freshman, this was exactly what I needed and demonstrates the kindness she showed to each person she interacted with. I know Westover, Lynchburg, and myself would not be the same without her.”
This year, Cowden was to have served on Druebbisch’s thesis committee, something the biomedical science major was looking forward to. “She has done so much to help me grow as a student and as a person, always challenging me to think of what’s next and encouraging me to push myself both inside and outside the classroom,” Druebbisch said.
“I was so excited to have her on my thesis committee this year because we had developed such a great relationship, and I knew she would contribute greatly to my project.”
Aysha Zaman ’19, a biology graduate and Westover Fellow, agreed. “Dr. Cowden could always see the potential in students, and I think that is what allowed her to provide so much patience and support,” she said.
“She provided guidance to so many Westover students in the sciences, and devoted countless hours to helping us develop senior projects with enthusiasm and constructive feedback. Her level of dedication is so perfectly exemplary of the community of students and faculty at Lynchburg, and a great piece of this community will be missed.”
Zaman recalled not only Cowden’s “depth of knowledge and passion for plant biology” but also her lighter side. “One of my favorite traits about Dr. Cowden was her sense of humor,” she said. “She could make the most mundane statement funny with her sarcasm. Not everyone could pick up on it, but I don’t think I ever had a conversation with her where I didn’t laugh.”
Dr. Beth Savage, director of the Westover Honors College, will remember her colleague for both her ferocity and her generosity. “She fought fiercely for her students and for causes she believed in,” Savage said.
“She was a generous mentor, not just to her students but to her faculty colleagues as well, and I benefited greatly from her kind and thoughtful counsel, as did so many faculty in biology and environmental science. Dr. Cowden was equally likely to argue with you passionately, and to bring you vegetables from her garden — probably even on the same day.
“She was generous with her time, and after working with students on research and thesis projects, she would volunteer her time in the community to lead hikes, work with community education programs, volunteer with Lynchburg Grows, and to knit scarves and hats for people in need. … Her energy, kindness, and spirit knew no bounds, and her loss will be deeply felt.”
Dr. Allison Jablonski, Lynchburg’s provost and a professor of biology and biomedical science, is well-acquainted with all of these stories. For years, she witnessed firsthand what she described as Cowden’s “ease of relationship” and devotion to students and faculty.
“She guided many, many students through the Westover thesis process, supporting them, and gaining their trust in the process,” Jablonski said. “She worked closely with students on her research and launched many into graduate school.
“Faculty members will miss her as she was a solid team player and colleague, always ready to lend a hand, share a wry joke and appreciate the joys and struggles of teaching. She was respected for her knowledge, but also her calm demeanor. And the candy bowl on her desk.
“Our offices were opposite one another for many years, and we shared so many moments. She always said she knew I was working on something difficult when I had my hair up in a bun. She called it my ‘serious hair.’ I will miss her a great deal.”
A memorial service for Cowden will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 20, in Snidow Chapel. Due to COVID-19 precautions, the service will livestreamed.