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Jeannine B. Cowles: Honorary Degree Recipient 2015
Jeannine B. Cowles: Honorary Degree Recipient 2015

Jeannine Bouchard Cowles is an accomplished businesswoman and patron of the arts whose generosity has brought national renown to Portland State University’s opera program.

Cowles trained as a singer, making her operatic debut at 17 and studying voice at the prestigious Hartt College in Connecticut and the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. She went on to perform professionally and was in the original Broadway production of “Oklahoma!” in 1951. 

In the 1960s Cowles acquired the Multnomah County franchise of Weight Watchers and moved across the country to begin a business career in the Pacific Northwest.

Under her leadership, the franchise flourished, growing to encompass 30 counties in Oregon and Washington. Cowles thrived as well, becoming involved in many civic and arts organizations in Portland and taking her place as one of the city’s first female business leaders.

Through the years, her love of music remained steadfast. She joined the choir at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, where she was the alto soloist, and became friends with Ruth Dobson, a voice professor at Portland State University.  Cowles was impressed by the talent at work in Dobson’s opera workshop and gave her first gift to Portland State University in 1987.

Since then, she has provided transformational resources to the opera program at Portland State. She founded the Jeannine Cowles Endowed Scholarship in 1993, which has supported dozens of talented young singers and orchestra students. The Jeannine B. Cowles Distinguished Professor in Residence brings well-known conductors and directors to campus each year to assist with the opera production. In 2007, Cowles challenged PSU with a $500,000 matching gift to establish an opera endowment, which now exceeds $900,000. And most recently, she established the Jeannine Cowles Vocal Performance Professorship to bring another extraordinary voice professor to the School of Music.

In all, Cowles has given almost $2.5 million to Portland State. As a direct result of her visionary support, the opera program at Portland State University has risen to national prominence, winning three awards from the National Opera Association. PSU is now the only university in the West to produce a full opera with orchestra each year. It is thanks to Jeannine Cowles that this elaborate and enchanting art form, which Cowles has called “the most complex of the arts,” will continue to thrive at PSU for years to come.