The following article originally appeared in the
Monday, May 25, 1998. It is worth noting that the author, with the best of intentions, avoids using terms like "blind," "blindness," "visually impaired," etc. and instead substitutes "sightless." Blind, blindness, low vision, and visually impaired are not derogatory but simply accurate descriptions of a medical condition.
Ask sightless Dr. Stanley McGowen why he decided to pursue Texas history as his specialty and the Baird native answers with his usual irreverence.
"Well, I thought about going to law school," he told me, "but I decided I'd have too much trouble chasing all those ambulances."
That delightful mixture - an eagle-eyed reverence for the history of the sprawling Southwest and a free-wheeling irreverence for all else - likely leaves students at Tarrant County Junior College with one of their most unique academic experiences.
What's more, Stanley's seeing-eye yellow lab "Nicro" is as much a part of the show as Stanley.
"He yawns," Stanley quipped of his canine companion during the college history classes Stanley conducts in Cowtown. "In fact, he snores during my classes, he's heard my lectures so many times. I'm afraid history no longer fascinates him."
In his own way, though, 51-year-old Stanley McGowen is as much a part of the legend and lore of his old stomping ground in Callahan County as any other man or morsel of regional history. For one thing, he's someone who went to Vietnam and survived.
But that's been but one of his adventures.
Stanley is part of a most unique Memorial Day ceremony 11 a.m. today at Belle Plaine Cemetery, several miles south of Baird. After Stanley gives a rousing Memorial Day speech, Joe Tollett and Meagan Spinks will become man and wife as Abilene Community Band flutist Arlieta Jones plays the wedding march.
Last I heard, association members were debating over whose graves the bride's train would fall. It was only natural the Belle Plaine Cemetery Association turn to Stanley as speaker for their annual Memorial Day ceremony. Stanley is not only one of these independent Callahan Countians, he also comes from a long line of veterans.
By his account, Stanley's dad served in World War II, his grandfather fought in the Spanish-American War, his great-grandfather served the Confederacy in the Civil War and his great-great-great-grandfather fought alongside the North Carolina militia in the American Revolution.
"I guess what I'll really be speaking about is patriotism and belief in your country and the notion that, while there are some professional soldiers in any war, there are always citizen-soldiers who are citizens first and soldiers whenever and wherever they're needed.
"My family is probably as good an example of that as any." Stanley's own wartime experience saw him immersed in Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader and company commander. Today, he admits to some of the pride other Vietnam veterans feel, yet also echoes their confusion over policies in Southeast Asia at the time.
"I was doing what I was trained to do, but it was harrowing, it was scary," he said. "I've changed my viewpoint about Vietnam several times over the years. I'm still ambivalent about whether we should've been over there. But I did what I was ordered."
Asked about one-time auto executive and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's recent public misgivings over the very war he administered three decades ago, Stanley says little, other than to remark: "Well, he was responsible for the escalation."
But if Stanley McGowen makes the local history books, it'll be because of his comeback after a flying accident he suffered in 1990, while still in the Army. A loss of power in a private plane he was taking to Alaska saw him crash shortly after takeoff in Utah.
Serious injuries not only left Stanley sightless but required a year of operations, hospital stays and rehabilitation. When he emerged, he was still high in spirits but confused about what loomed ahead. A future in the Army was obviously out.
And then he thought about pursuing his one other passion - history. Relocating with wife Jolene to Granbury, he went back to school at Tarleton State University to get his master's and last year gained his doctorate at Texas Christian University.
"Well, I have readers, people who read to me or for me," he said, explaining his method of reading histories. "There are a bunch of books recorded, textbooks and history, plus I have a scanner that reads the books, synthesizes them and reads them back to me.
"And my computer, when I type, it tells me what I'm writing, letter by letter."
He even continues to ski, he says.
Certainly neither Stanley nor his wife of 30 years have let tragedy impede them. While Jolene continues work as a nurse, he teaches and writes history, including what he hopes is a book on the 1st Texas Mounted Rifles, which his great-grandfather fought with.
Returning to his old hometown of Baird, however, remains a highlight, especially because it allows him to catch up with friends such as local mortician Fred Foy and Callahan County Veterans Service Officer and legendary beekeeper Tom Ivey.
"Stanley exemplifies the indomitable spirit of the people of Callahan County," cemetery association president Bill Masters said. "I mean, some of the people here have turned an annual cemetery event into a major historical attraction, and Stanley exemplifies the spirit of this cemetery, which is 'Never say die.'"
Admittedly, a strange spirit for the cemetery of a bona fide ghost town, but then maybe that's also why a wedding among the tombstones today isn't so out of the ordinary for Belle Plaine Cemetery. And it's just one more historical footnote Stanley McGowen can participate in.
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