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Epilogue | Stephen D. Cowen

Stephen Cowen was just a cop to some, but a helping hand to many

ST. PETERSBURG — Former St. Petersburg police Officer Stephen Cowen kept his possessions in order. He folded and stacked his underwear. He arranged his socks in rows.

He kept the memories of his law-enforcement career in a thick blue notebook, each page reinforced with cardboard and sheathed in plastic. The news clippings and letters thanked Mr. Cowen for numerous acts of kindness, resourcefulness and bravery.

Mr. Cowen died Wednesday of pancreatic cancer. He was 66. He served 20 years in the St. Petersburg Police Department, and another 11 years in the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office as a bailiff.

Several times, Mr. Cowen risked his safety protecting other officers who were being assaulted with guns, knives and automobiles. For his trouble, he took a knife gash to the head and a lawsuit for excessive force. He could have drowned when a police helicopter crashed into Tampa Bay in 1974, but managed to swim to safety.

He saved the clippings of those encounters in his scrapbook. For every story about an arrest, there is a letter of thanks for actions that didn't make the news:

Chasing down a purse snatcher.

Listening to a teenager's distraught mother.

Comforting the widow of a heart attack victim.

Once, he even lassoed a dog that had fallen into a canal.

• • •

Bill Proffitt was a 15-year-old police Explorer when he met Mr. Cowen, who taught him how to shoot a revolver.

"I knew I was interested in the profession," said Proffitt, now a police spokesman and division manager. "But what really sealed the deal were the police officers who were willing to give up so many hours of their lives to help people like me."

The Explorers practiced their shooting on Sundays at the police shooting range. As a plaque in his St. Pete Beach home attests, Mr. Cowen showed up each Sunday between 1973 to 2003 — about 1,560 consecutive weekends. He also led the state Explorers firearms program.

"He took to those kids like a duck to water," said Ed Doster, Mr. Cowen's former police sergeant. Helping young people on weekends sure beat arresting them during the week.

Mr. Cowen was 15 when, as a seasonal visitor from Chicago to St. Pete Beach, he announced that he would rather enroll in Admiral Farragut Academy than return home with his parents. His father, a judge, reluctantly agreed.

After college and a stint selling life insurance, Mr. Cowen joined the Police Department in 1969, a few years after the department dropped a height requirement that would have excluded him. He retired in 1989, then worked as a campus police officer for the University of Tampa before joining the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office as a bailiff.

"He was never a big person," Vanessa Cowen said of her husband, who stood 5 feet 8. "He had to rely on tactics and persuasion."

They met in 1995, when both were divorced and working as bailiffs.

A relationship grew for eight years, during which Mr. Cowen twice proposed marriage. He swore he would never ask her again — so in 2004, she asked him. In the bailiff's snack area, with a videocamera rolling, she dropped to one knee and proposed marriage.

Circuit Judge Mark Shames married the bailiffs in his courtroom, both wearing their uniforms.

The Cowens had begun an adventurous retirement, towing a fifth-wheel across the country and volunteering in national parks. But in January, a doctor diagnosed Mr. Cowen with pancreatic cancer.

In mid March, he received an updated prognosis: two weeks to live.

"I lost it completely," Mrs. Cowen said. Her husband took the news calmly. "He just hugged me and he said, 'Don't worry. Everything's going to be okay.' "

To Vanessa Cowen, it seemed just like her husband to reassure her, to tell her that it was his time and that all was in fact right with the world.

"He's just a cop, is what he is," she said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Stephen D. Cowen

Born: July 14, 1942.

Died: April 1, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Vanessa; daughters, Stephanie Shepard, Elizabeth Cowen; granddaughter Skye Shepard.

Service: private.

Stephen Cowen was just a cop to some, but a helping hand to many 04/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 6:50pm]
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