It is with great sadness that we learnt of John Cowdall’s recent death. John had been a Governor at Stonyhurst since 2006 and was a dedicated and committed Chair of Governors from 2009 to 2018.
Any Chair of Governors at Stonyhurst is always going to have a difficult, time consuming and often thankless task taking on huge responsibility but you might argue that John Cowdall had it harder than most. For it was he who saw the College through one of its most dramatic decades in history steering this great school through the early days of the Local Trust - an agreement with the Society of Jesus that ensured that we will always have a Jesuit heart but can run independently. This was a highly complex agreement which ensured the medium and long term future of the school, would allow us to survive the credit crunch and plan for an ever changing world of education and absolutely guaranteed that we will always be a Jesuit school. It is one of those achievements that now goes unnoticed but which underpins every subsequent development.
John came well qualified for a place like Stonyhurst with his long experience and reputation in the maintenance of historic buildings but he brought so much more than that. He was a Chairman who had time for everyone. Day after day he would be a presence - meeting for hours with the heads, the bursar, the teaching staff, the ancillary staff and the pupils. Everybody knew John Cowdall and knew that he would know them, stop for them and encourage them. He had an extraordinary memory and knew about the backgrounds of families and children he might never even have met. John was a person who was always there for you, always thought the best of you and always thanked you for whatever you were doing for Stonyhurst. He always had time to write personal notes and he celebrated people’s successes with gifts of gratitude. He was driven by a deep faith in God and in the goodness of people and he embraced the Jesuit pupil profile in thought, word and deed. He shared and owned people’s burdens without ever disclosing his own. He, and his wonderfully supportive wife Eileen, had endured their own tragedies but you would never have known it in the way they gave up their daily lives for the good of Stonyhurst. It is therefore a great blessing that they were able to see their granddaughter, Phoebe, go through all her years at Stonyhurst.
John lived for Stonyhurst. There were days of triumph and there were days of crisis but he took it all in his stride. At the centre, he had a humanity that touched everyone and whatever side you took on the often impossible decisions he had to make, you always knew that the College was in good hands.
In recent years he was involved with the foundation of the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst. John had only just stepped down as Chairman of Trustees of The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst, five days before his passing. Although a considered decision, it was with regret that he had chosen to do so due to his slowly-worsening health. The frustration this caused him emphasised his dedication to the project and willingness to give it everything he could. Though he had been at the helm as chairman for less than a year, he was one of two founding trustees, alongside Lord Alton of Liverpool, at the charity’s inception several years before. With his store of practical experience in all things related to historic buildings, he was one of the mainstays in carrying forward the charity’s complete rebuilding of Stonyhurst College’s Old Mill. John’s willingness to drive forward a completely fresh project from scratch, with all its associated challenges, and to do so in succession to years of dedicated service and hard work as Stonyhurst College’s Chair of Governors, spoke of John’s generosity and tireless commitment. As a result of the creative partnership he forged with Lord Alton, John has left the charity a lasting legacy in Theodore House.
Although the challenges posed by his health had grown through his tenure as Chairman of the charity, he nonetheless persevered in regular, often impromptu, visits to Theodore House in order to support the staff and discuss progress. To those who knew John personally, his generosity did not cease with his work. His warmth and kindness extended to all those he met, often going out of his way to express this in unobtrusive ways.