Robert McGowan, an artist and writer who served with the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69, died November 15 after a long battle with Agent Orange-caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 65 years old.
McGowan, known to his friends as Rob, also was a leader in the 1980s and 1990s effort to revitalize the South Main District of Memphis, where he lived and worked. In 1988, McGowan and his first wife Annie Mahaffey started the Memphis Center for Contemporary Art in the then run-down downtown neighborhood. The Center was next door to a store-front building the couple had bought in 1981 and renovated. The nonprofit Center featured the work of dozens of local and artists and ran video and performance art series, among other endeavors.
“South Main had been abandoned by the city, by developers, and by local lending institutions, ” the South Main Association noted in September when McGowan received the Downtown Memphis Commission Visionary Award.
McGowan and Mahaffey “initiated the establishment of the South Main Historic District and founded the South Main Historic District Association, Memphis Center for Contemporary Art, Tennessee New Art Association, and the art publication NUMBER . Rob was a true urban pioneer who paid a great personal price for his interest and belief in preserving and revitalizing an urban environment. The South Main District we see and enjoy today is the result of his vision and hard work.”
In recent years McGowan concentrated on writing essays, novels, and short stories. That includes Nam , a compilation of war-related short stories, which was published earlier this. David Willson, in his review of the book on The VVA Veteran ‘s Books in Brief on the web page, called the stories ” dazzling, harsh, funny, and truthful.”
Willson formed a close friendship with McGowan following the publication of Nam . “When I heard the news, I shed bitter tears for the loss of Rob, but tried to tell myself that the great life he’d led since Vietnam was more and better than the lives of tens of thousands who died in Vietnam or who were grievously wounded there, ” Willson told us.
“Now I shed more bitter tears—for Rob, for me, and for all of those whose lives were shortened or taken by that unnecessary war. I miss Rob every day and feel his loss constantly, and I never even met him in the flesh, so powerful was the bond we forged as he went though his cancer treatments. His humor and his great good spirits are with me still, even though he has gone away.”
You can read an illustrated article on McGowan’s artwork on the Memphis Magazine’s website .