Gardner “Pat” Cowles III, former owner and publisher of The Sag Harbor Express and scion of a publishing family that spanned three generations and owned newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations across the Midwest and the East Coast, passed away peacefully on Friday, January 25, at his home in Naples, Fla. He was 82 years old.
Mr. Cowles was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on March 6, 1936, the son of Gardner “Mike” Cowles II and Lois Thornburg Cowles. The senior Mr. Cowles was the publisher of the Des Moines Register and Tribune and the founder and publisher of Look magazine. The family also owned the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, published by his uncle, John Cowles.
Mr. Cowles spent his younger years in Des Moines and later attended schools in the Northeast, as his father moved operations of Look to New York City. He graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine with a degree in physics.
While at Bowdoin, Mr. Cowles joined the ROTC, and later served in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army, followed by the Army Reserves for 10 years. He attained the rank of lieutenant. His professional life was devoted to the family business of newspaper publishing. In the 1960s, Mr. Cowles’ father acquired dailies in Gainesville and Lakeland, Florida., putting Mr. Cowles in charge of the operations of both.
In the mid-1960s, Cowles Communications, as the company had come to be known, became interested in the New York market, and in particular with the growth of suburban Long Island. With the creation of the company’s Suffolk Sun in November 1966, Mr. Cowles was installed as publisher and ran operations at the six-day-a-week daily, beginning a long career in journalism on Long Island.
Based in Deer Park, the Sun was intended to capitalize on the expansion of suburbia into Suffolk County, and featured a contemporary design along with four-color photography and daily color comics, neither of which were offered by the paper’s chief rival, Newsday. But plagued by distribution problems in the still largely rural reaches of the county, the Sun suspended publication in October 1969.
By that time, Mr. Cowles had settled on the North Shore in Nissequogue and Old Field. He purchased the Three Village Herald in Setauket and began what would become a four-decade relationship with weekly newspapers. The Three Village Herald served the communities of Old Field, Setauket, and Stony Brook. He also ran a printing business and used his mechanical skills to regularly maintain and repair the troublesome presses. He also could be found repairing printers, computers, and fax machines in his newspapers’ offices.
Mr. Cowles briefly owned the Riverhead News-Review, buying it from the Forbes family and selling it to Stuart Dorman, who later sold it to Troy and Joan Gustavson.
In August, 1988, Mr. Cowles purchased The Sag Harbor Express from Victoria Gardner, whose family was only the second to own The Express since its founding in 1859. Immediately, Mr. Cowles began an extensive renovation of The Express building on Main Street and spent the next few months assembling a staff, while Mrs. Gardner, who stayed on as associate editor, continued publishing the paper from her apartment on the second floor. Mr. Cowles brought in Macintosh computers and programs for creating a newly designed paper, one of the first to do so on Long Island.
On November 24, 1988, the newly redesigned Express debuted, with color photography and full coverage of village and town life, and immediately found itself in a turf war with a rival weekly, The Sag Harbor Herald, published by Helen Rattray of the East Hampton Star, which had started operation only weeks before. The Express outlasted The Herald, and four years later was again the sole weekly in Sag Harbor.
Mr. Cowles retained the title of publisher of The Sag Harbor Express until 2000, and during that time the paper received many national and state awards, of which he was very proud, always crediting the hard work of the staff. In 2012, he transferred his remaining interest in the paper to his close friend and co-publisher/editor, Bryan Boyhan, who has since transferred ownership to Gavin and Kathryn Menu.
Mr. Cowles also owned the weekly Shelter Island Reporter, which he purchased in 1989 from Barbara Dunne. The newspaper enjoyed broad readership on the island, and was edited by Elizabeth A. Bonora, a veteran of Newsday and The Southampton Press, who would become Mr. Cowles’ second wife.
The couple married in 2001 and built a house on Hill Street in Southampton, where they split their time with homes, first, in St. Petersburg, then in Naples, Fla.
Mr. Cowles subsequently sold the Reporter to the Gustavsons, publishers of the Riverhead News Review and the Suffolk Times in Mattituck.
Mr. Cowles was a former member of the Long Island Press Club Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a former board member of the New York Press Association.
He was also associated with several charitable organizations, including the Cowles Charitable Trust, of which he was chairman until his death. He was a generous philanthropist, supporting Eaglebrook School, Salisbury School, The Taft School, and Bowdoin College, where a scholarship is named for him. He supported Stony Brook Hospital and served on its Ethics Committee.
Mr. Cowles was a continuous contributor to Southampton Hospital, Bay Street Theater, Long House, John Jermain Library, Fighting Chance, Planned Parenthood, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where both he and his wife were treated in the past for cancer. He survived throat cancer eight years ago, but was stricken by metastatic lung cancer, which was diagnosed in Florida only six weeks before his death.
Mr. Cowles was thoughtful, humble, and generous. He loved traveling, especially on trans-Atlantic crossings to London, where he would visit his favorite restaurants (Rules and Le Gavroche), go to the theater, study World War II history, and shop at Selfridges. He read Nicholas Sparks novels, watched baseball and football games, and British television shows, and treated family and friends to wonderful meals in wonderful restaurants, even though he ate very little.
Mr. Cowles continued to go to his office at The Express, where he “hung his hat” most summer days and kept involved with the goings-on of publishing Sag Harbor’s newspaper. During winter months in Naples, he enjoyed sunset dinners on the beach at the Port Royal Club, driving his yellow 1952 MG-TD, and talking to neighbors while he took his little dog “Mike” on long walks.
He was an amateur (Ham) radio operator, and loved to keep up to date with new technology. Mr. Cowles was a Mr. Fixit, who was hard to keep off of ladders and rooftops, and he became a self-taught furniture maker after an earlier interest as a metal sculptor. He’d spend months building a Tesla coil or Jacob’s ladder, just to prove to himself that he could. Collecting art was also passion. Mr. Cowles held an airplane pilot’s license, and enjoyed bungee jumping. He took his first bungee jump in 1999 in Tromso, Norway, sneaking away while his wife Betty was having coffee with her family.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Cowles is survived by his step-daughter, Bonnie Hoye, of Southampton; two sisters, Katie Nichols of Menerbes, France and Virginia Cowles of New York, N.Y., and several nieces, nephews and cousins.
Mr. Cowles was pre-deceased by sisters Lois Harrison and Jane Cowles. An earlier marriage to the former Sharon Whatmore ended in divorce.
A private gathering to honor Mr. Cowles will be held in New York this coming summer. He requested no funeral. His remains will be buried in Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, the resting place of former publishers of The Express. The family asks that donations in Mr. Cowles’ name be made to Fighting Chance, P.O. Box 1358 Sag Harbor, N.Y. 11963, or at fightingchance.org.
Mr. Cowles is deeply missed by his wife, who was beside him at the time of his death, and by his family and friends.