Nell Cowden

Nell Cowden, pictured at Northwest’s R.T. Wright Farm, recently joined the university’s Homesteader society in support of the Agricultural Learning Center. In addition to her family’s roots in teaching and agriculture, Cowden’s family heritage is connected to the university’s earliest days.

MARYVILLE, Mo.— Nell Cowden, a lifelong Nodaway County resident and Northwest Missouri State University alumna, recently became part of the university’s Homesteader society by donating at least $25,000 in support of the Agricultural Learning Center (ALC), located at Northwest’s R.T. Wright Farm.

According to a press release, Cowden decided to contribute to the center after attending the facility’s grand opening.

“I was sitting in there and thinking, ‘This is really a huge contribution to the area, to education and to my great-grandparents’ vision. I should be contributing,’’ Cowden said.

Cowden has deep farming roots and strong ties to Northwest, a news release noted. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Northwest in 1969, a master’s degree in history from the university in 1971 and a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the university in 1979. She also worked as an academic adviser and then as assistant registrar while obtaining her master’s degrees.

Her younger brother, William Cowden is a 1972 Northwest alumnus.

Both Cowden’s parents attended Northwest during the early 1930s. Her father, Bernard Cowden, came to Northwest from Oklahoma and played basketball with the Bearcats under coach Henry “Hank” Iba from 1931 through 1933. In 1933, he was named to the All-MIAA Second Team, a press release mentioned. 

In honor of Cowden’s mother, Emily Cowden, an “Autumn Brilliance” serviceberry is planted at the main entrance to Northwest’s Agricultural Learning Center.

According to a press release, Cowden’s great-grandparents, James H. and Emily Lemon, played integral roles in setting up a college in Maryville. James was a member of the Missouri House of Representatives and introduced House Bill No. 311, which in 1905 led to the establishment of the Fifth District Normal School, as Northwest was originally known. Lemon’s efforts culminated a 30-year struggle to bring higher education to the region.

Lemon, who fought and was injured in the Civil War, homesteaded a farm between Burlington Junction and Clearmont with his wife, Emily Kautz Lemon, after arriving from Good Hope, Illinois, in the 1870s. Both were teachers before they married and raised six children, four of whom – including three daughters – graduated from Missouri State Normal School of the First District in Kirksville.

“Sending daughters to college in that time was extremely unusual,” said Cowden, who has learned the family’s history through letters kept by her grandparents and her own genealogy research. “I am certain Emily played an important role in their education. They followed in her footsteps.” 

One of those daughters was Cowden’s grandmother, Nell Lemon Jones, for whom she is named, a press release noted. Both of Jones’ daughters earned degrees from Northwest, including Cowden’s mother, Emily Jones Cowden, who graduated in 1933 with a degree in agricultural education.

From attending homecoming parades, football games and variety shows as a child to growing up with Northwest icons Ryland Milner and Robert Foster as family friends, and walking among the American elms that once lined the stretch between the Gaunt House and the Administration Building, Northwest’s history is ingrained in Cowden.

According to a news release, when the time came for her to consider a college education, Cowden says she never considered going anywhere but Northwest.

“We were baby boomers, so we had pretty significant goals,” Cowden says of her generation. “I think our parents wanted us to do better than they did, and they saw education as a viable way to accomplish that. So we were pretty intense about getting an education, going into the world and having a career.”

Cowden says she carries a special sense of pride because of her family’s connection to Northwest. That is why she supports the university and its programs, a news release noted.

“Many people, in addition to my family, provided opportunities for me,” she said. “I have loved going to school. I enjoyed the places I worked and the things I did. I enjoy my retirement. I’ve been a huge recipient of what came before. Hopefully my contribution helps fulfill the vision of James H. and Emily K. Lemon.”

Cowden’s story and connection to Northwest is different than most, noted Sam Mason, a major gift officer in Northwest’s Office of University Advancement who facilitated Cowden’s contribution to the ALC. 

“I’m always amazed how deeply the Northwest roots run with many people in Nodaway County, but none run deeper than Nell’s,” Mason said. “The generosity Nell has shown to KXCV-KRNW has certainly been a game-changer for the entire region and especially for those students who are working to become better communicators. Her recent gift to the Agricultural Learning Center will not only benefit current and future generations of ag professionals, but it will serve to advance the agriculture industry in all of northwest Missouri. We can’t thank Nell enough for her kindness and generosity to Northwest Missouri State.”