Sage Cowles and John Cowles, Jr.—2005-06 Louis W. Hill, Jr. Fellows

The 2005-06 Fellowship was granted, not to an individual, but to a couple—Sage and John Cowles, Jr. Their community leadership and philanthropic commitment have reached into many areas (the arts, sports, media, and civic affairs), though their names will be recognized most readily, perhaps, in connection with the Cowles Media Company, owner of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and other newspapers since 1935, when the Minneapolis Star was purchased by John’s family.

John Cowles, Jr. (a Des Moines native)—after having served two years in the army and earning a degree from Harvard College—began a 30-year career with the Minneapolis Star Tribune as a police reporter in 1953. He succeeded his father, John Cowles, Sr., as CEO of Cowles Media Company in 1968.

He organized a group of corporate leaders to build the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the first double-layer soft-roofed sports facility of its kind. Raising $15 million, the group helped bring the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins to downtown Minneapolis. As chair of the group, Cowles worked with other community leaders to assure support from the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, and the State of Minnesota. The Star Tribune contributed some of the land.

Sage Fuller Cowles, born in Paris, France, came to Minnesota in 1953 after having studied at the New York City School of American Ballet, and having earned a B.A. in Art History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Since then, she has received numerous grants for her work as a performing artist and choreographer, and has served on various boards devoted to community service and philanthropy.

In the early 1960s, she and two friends created the Highcroft Country Day School, which proved to be one of her most notable and satisfying philanthropic actions. The school later became part of Blake School.

When the Cowleses’ daughter Jane played college softball at Utah State (resulting in an opportunity to play fast-pitch softball in the College World Series), the couple saw, first-hand, the importance of sports participation for young women, and they became strong advocates for women’s sports, providing philanthropic support to countless organizations dedicated to equal rights, and to enabling women to reach their fuller potential. Their philanthropy helped realize the Title IX weight room in Ridder Hockey Arena and the women’s softball stadium (named for their daughter), both at the University of Minnesota.

In the 1990s, the Cowleses helped launch the Women’s Professional Fastpitch League, the first league of its kind. Related to the League, John served as the Chairman of Pro Softball Founders.

An unusual gift was made by the Cowleses in 1971 when they moved downtown to be closer to John’s work. At the suggestion of neighbor Bruce Dayton, they chose not to sell their house and land, but instead gave it to Dayton’s new Spring Hill Conference Center.

Sage Cowles currently serves on the advisory committee to the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library, and on the boards of the Minnesota Schubert Center Steering Committee, and the Cunningham Dance Foundation (New York City). Borrowing Ms. Cowles’ name, the first annual Sage Awards were organized in October 2005 by the dance community to recognize the year’s best in Minnesota dance—in choreography, performance, and design.

John Cowles has served on the boards of directors of many journalism, business, and nonprofit organizations, including the Associated Press and Pulitzer Prize (Columbia University) boards in New York and the Guthrie Theatre and Walker Art Center boards in Minneapolis. In fact, his involvement with the Guthrie began in 1959 when he met with a close associate of Tyrone Guthrie’s to pursue the possibility of building a live repertory theater company in Minneapolis. Cowles formed a committee, searched out a venue, worked with architect Ralph Rapson, and—of course—played a major role in fundraising. The Guthrie opened in 1963 with “Hamlet.”

The capstone of the Cowleses’ year as Louis W. Hill, Jr. Fellows—the public symposium—was held April 4, 2006, at the H.H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs.