Retired Marine conquers his fear

Published 7:40 pm Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Eddie Cowell served 28 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and retired as a Sergeant Major. Even after serving in Desert Storm and Desert Shield, he still had one fear — a college education.

On Dec. 18, Cowell, 50, a husband and father of two, conquered that fear and graduated from Tidewater Community College, completing the school’s funeral service program.

“I was always so scared of college. I didn’t think I had what it took to pursue a higher education,” Cowell said. “I had obtained the highest rank of an enlisted man in the Marine Corps and had a tremendous amount of confidence in my ability as a Marine. Eighty-five percent of the men I was leading either went or were going to college, but I feared the idea.”

His interest in funeral service began as a child while watching funeral processions around the corner from his home in Norfolk.

“Starting when I was around 9, I was taken by the local funeral homes when the procession would line up around the houses — watching the hearsts, caskets and cars line up outside,” he said.

Cowell earned his high school degree from Lake Taylor in Norfolk and then enlisted into the Marine Corps. He retired in 2005.

In 1993, while he was on assignment in Washington D.C., a funeral home director took him inside the business and showed him the workings of it.

“He took me around the funeral home and showed me how the body was prepped and everything,” he said. “It didn’t scare me at all. That confirmed my desire to go into funeral service.”

Cowell found key opportunities to learn more about the business before being transferred to the Middle East.

Cowell’s desire to go into the business became increasingly apparent, but the fear of college held him back.

“One of my Marines went to my wife to convince her to get me to go to college,” he said. “They came to me and said I had to go. So, I did.”

While still on active duty, in 2005, Cowell began his higher education, taking night classes, one at a time. That year he retired from the military but was still working as a government employee.

“I pressed my way through that,” Cowell said. “I began taking more and more classes, and eventually I was taking 11 credits while still working full time. It was a tremendous load on me, but my desire to be a funeral director made me press on.”

It took him a year and a half to develop good study and note-taking habits.

“I’d been out of school for 20 years,” he said. “I wasn’t prepped for all that. I had to overcome my fears, understand what my deficiencies were, and then correct and arrange them to succeed in school.”

While it may have taken Cowell four years to complete a two-year degree, he is glad to be doing what he loves.

“The best aspect is when a family comes in,” he said. “They are at the lowest part of their lives and you help them through it. When they turn to you and say, ‘He was so sick for so long, but he looks so peaceful now,’ and they thank you … that’s what funeral service is.”

Despite the difficulties and non-traditional course he took, Cowell said he wouldn’t change his life course for anything.

“I would never, no matter what I do, change the way I did things,” he said. “There is nothing like being a Marine. I miss the look, feel, touch, talk and walk of being a United States Marine, but that honor transfers to younger, stronger leaders now. It’s my turn to cheer for them from the sidelines.”