Fifty years ago today, the cockeyed mob surrounding the Anderson County courthouse was growing violent.
Rabble rousers in the crowd of more than 2,000 hurled small explosives, beer cans and punches at police and firefighters, who struggled to maintain peace at the July 6, 1963, Lake Garnett Grand Prix auto races.
Garnett police and the Franklin County Sheriff’s office awaited backup to help control the carousing horde — its members shouting “Freedom! Freedom!” after several arresets. Firefighters sprayed the group with hoses as it advanced to the steps of the jailhouse. Rioters quickly sliced the firefighters’ hose lines, thwarting once again authorities’ attempt to calm the swarm.
Nearing midnight, additional police forces arrived and used nonlethal weapons in attempts to disperse the throngs.
But in the fog of his deployed tear gas, Ottawa Police Capt. Robert Cowdin slumped over on the courthouse square, unable to catch his breath. After failed attempts to calm the crowd, Cowdin fired the tear gas that ultimately prompted his fatal heart attack.
“[Authorities] knew if anyone could talk the kids into going home, it would be him,” the Rev. Michael Cowdin, a nephew of the late Capt. Cowdin said.
He was 12 at the time of his uncle’s death.
“He tried to plead with the kids, but the crowd rushed him,” Michael Cowdin said. “I awoke to my aunt on the phone, and all these adults crying. Then my mom grabbed me and told me my uncle Bob died.”
More than 50,000 racing enthusiasts converged on the small community of Garnett — then a 3,000-person town — for the racing event, and many participants set up tents around the lake. The so called “Tent City” apparently was a hub for revelry-seekers and scantily clad women, according to media reports.
After their “beer for breakfast,” many race fans imbibed alcohol for much of the day, watching Maseratis, Alfa-Romeos and other sports cars speed through the 2.8-mile course that circled Lake Garnett, the Garnett Review reported. And after a day of racing in the hot, humid air, many of the college-aged fans cooled off at two Garnett bars, according to the Kansas Historical Society.
Several area newspapers estimated that Garnett race enthusiasts consumed anywhere between 8,000 and 21,000 beers on July 6, 1963, alone. That statistic apparently led Garnett authorities to conclude that “drinking was the main cause of the riot,” which led to 28 arrests, nearly 100 injuries and Cowdin’s death, according to media reports.
Cowdin’s death in the line of duty is the only of its kind for the Ottawa Police Department, which still recognizes his sacrifice. In addition to annual recognition in the National Peace Officers Memorial Week, the department also honors Cowdin’s memory with a plaque inside the lobby of the police station at 715 W. Second St., Ottawa.
The department postponed its memorial service this May when law enforcement officials found themselves with a quadruple homicide investigation on their hands in rural Ottawa just three days before the service was to take place.
“I’m disappointed we had to postpone the service, and I’m unsure at this point if we will be able to reschedule it for this year,” Butler said. “This would have been the 50th anniversary of his death and the fifth anniversary of our observance, so there would have been a couple of milestones this year.”
Butler initiated the local memorial service five years ago, including dedicating the plaque to Cowdin, he said.
The late police captain’s name is inscribed on law enforcement memorials in Topeka and Washington, D.C., Butler said.
“The memorial on the statehouse grounds in Topeka just underwent a rehab, and they asked [police departments] if they wanted the names of their [fallen] officers from the original granite or marble, so we are going to get Capt. Cowdin’s.”
Butler also has an etched drawing of Cowdin’s name from the memorial in Washington, he said. The police chief plans to display the original name from the state memorial and the etching from the national memorial, but hasn’t decided how best to do that yet, he said.
Fifty years later, Cowdin’s nephew said he still employs lessons learned from his uncle, who was overweight, he said.
“I keep my weight in check because of what happened to him,” Michael Cowdin, now of Los Angeles, said of his uncle, who died at the age of 43.
Cowdin added that his uncle was a “verbose” man, and could easily captivate friends and family with colorful stories. A U.S. Navy veteran, Capt. Cowdin was a positive role model and active in the Ottawa community, his nephew said.
“He was an amazing man,” Cowdin recalled. “He was full of life and wanted to see people change. The best way to describe him is just delightful and a real solid citizen.”