Barbara Cowles (1928-2011)

by Shawna Lewis


“It must have been 1964 or ’65 when we met,” says longtime friend Delores Duke. We both lived on Brookside and our houses faced each other. She was walking her daughter in a stroller, and I was outside playing with one of my own daughters. We started talking, and she found out I played piano too.”

For forty-four years, Barbara Cowles was devoted to Tulsa Philharmonic, eventually retiring as the musician with the longest continuous service.

“She loved the Philharmonic, especially the camaraderie with other musicians,” Duke said.

Skilled and meticulous in avenues beyond music, Cowles was also an avid lawn mower. “She mowed her 2-acre lot almost constantly, and the neighbors called her the ‘Racecar Tractor Driver,’ because of her lead foot,” Duke said. “She mowed very fast.”

Her fearless mowing style often landed her turned-over in a ditch, having to knock on a neighbor’s door to help her pull the tractor out.

Cowles’ husband used to call her ‘the Barney Oldfield of lawn mowing.’

“Barbara was very spur-of-the-moment,” Duke recalled. “She would come off very reserved, but all you had to say was ‘why don’t we go there today?’ and she would get up and go with you. In 2006, we up and went to London together, completely spontaneous. And she was in her late seventies.”

In 2001, Tulsa Philharmonic closed, having declared bankruptcy. While Cowles had retired years earlier, Duke says it was still a big disappointment for her.

“Barbara was very sad during the years that we didn’t have an orchestra. She loved being a part of it, and even after her tenure, she loved to attend.”

Cowles owned a cello as well as two pianos: one grand piano, and one upright, both inherited. “She played almost right up until she passed away,” Duke said. “Bach was her favorite.”