ROBERT MERLE "BOB" COWAN ~ Class of 1960
January 10, 1942 - November 23, 2003
Robert Merle Cowan, prominent Kenai Attorney and President for Life of the
Kenai Bar Association, passed away peacefully at 2:00 AM Sunday Nov. 23rd at
Providence Hospital in Anchorage. He was 61.
Bob was born January 10, 1942 in Prairie Grove Arkansas, son of Merle Cruz and
Oleta Lewis. His natural father died at the age of 45 from bladder cancer when
Bob was just four years old. The following year, he and his mother traveled
cross-country to Washington State where she began work at the Hanford Atomic
Energy project. There she remarried an old friend from her hometown of
Tahlequah Okalahoma who was also widowed, Leslie A. Cowan. Leslie promptly
adopted Bob, thus Bobby, as was called through high school, was always known
as Bob Cowan.
When Bob was 11 a surprising occurrence delighted Bob - his family had another
child. One which, as he put it, "would take the heat off me". The eleven-year
age difference, and death of Leslie Cowan in 1980, gave their relationship
elements of not only close brother sister, but also father daughter.
Bob completed primary and secondary school in Richland, singing in choir until
his voice changed, playing football, bird hunting, and his favorite - target
practice at the bombing range. He attended Washington State University for a
year, and then transferred to the warmth of San Diego at San Diego State
University where he joined the Sigma Chi fraternity. As was characteristic of
Bob throughout his life, he forged and retained close friendships from high
school and among his fraternity bothers. Bob obtained a Bachelor's in
Economics from San Diego State University and was completing his Master's
there when he decided to attend law school. He graduated from the University
of San Diego Law School in 1971.
In 1974 Bob went to Ketchikan, Alaska to work in the Public Defender's Office.
He promptly established a reputation as a character, even by Alaskan
standards. In 1975 he opened up the Kenai Peninsula Public Defender's Office.
It was there that he met his lifelong friend Bob Kentzel, an association
resulting in several new chapters to the many flamboyant personal and
professional stories that surrounded his life. At virtually every legal and
drinking bar in Alaska, a story of Bob Cowan can be found.
While still at the Public Defender's office, former Alaskan Public Defenders
Chief Herb Soll brought Bob out to Saipan, Commonwealth of the Marinas Islands
to assist with a murder case. Bob soon got involved with other cases
throughout Micronesia and was sworn into the Trust Territory of the Pacific
Islands High Court, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Court.
Again, he forged close friendships and served as a mentor for several young
men pursuing legal careers; taking one to Papua New Guinea to begin law
school. In 1980 he got involved in joint venture involving several nationally
prominent attorneys, including former ATLA President Richard F. Gerry, of
counsel to his Kenai practice, in representing Marshall Islanders affected by
the U.S. atomic testing done in the Marshall Islands following WW II. His work
on the Marshall Islands Atomic Litigation Project caused him to frequently
flying out to remote Pacific Islands, and from there at times take field trip
ships to atolls even more remote.
As a result, Bob was no stranger to the geography and customs of Micronesia
when he stood as father for his sister's marriage in Palau in 1984. One of his
long time associates from Palau remained as of counsel to his practice until
In 1979 Bob left the Public Defenders office and immediately went into private
practice with one of the many wild criminal defense cases that marked his
legal career. Over time, his criminal defense practice gravitated toward
serious personal injury and he was, again, involved in many high profile
Somewhere in college Bob had concluded that bladder cancer was hereditary,
thus he would have no children and probably never marry - unless he happened
to live to 50 or so, which he thought unlikely, and then only to some nice
quiet woman who would stay out of his way. That was not to come to pass. On
Dec 31, 1987, in a ceremony at the Captain Cook all who attended will
remember, he married Jan Aaronson. She was able to tolerate his eccentricities
and he grew to love her deeply.
Jan's sudden death to brain cancer in 1999 was devastating to Bob. He remained
close to her four grown children and grandchildren, all of whom live in Kenai.
It was at the time of Jan's death that Bob learned he had hereditary
hemochromatosis, a condition that is frequently associated with primary liver
In Bob's thirty years in Kenai he was not only instrumental in establishing a
local bar association offering continuing education, but in setting up a Youth
Court and numerous other community service projects.
Bob is survived by his beloved Mother, Oleta Lewis Cowan of Richland, WA;
his sister Suzanne Cowan Dimeff (of counsel with his law firm as Suzanne C.
Etpison) and her two sons, nephews Tao Etpison and Trace Dimeff, of Encinitas,
CA; his uncle Robert Lewis of Kennewick, WA; and several first cousins in
Bob donated his organs to scientific research and chose to be cremated.
Arrangements were made through Peninsula Memorial Chapel.
Alternatively, and especially for Bob's many "Bomber" classmate friends
and fraternity brothers, there is a memorial banch and plaque along the
Columbia River Walk near the Shilo Inn.
There was a memorial dedication on Saturday, April 3rd, 2004, followed by a party of ribald stories at the Kafentzis home.