Sierra Views: Michael Cowley, a man of many interests

By Lenore Rutherford, The Union Democrat February 28, 2013 11:11 am

Michael Cowley has already experienced more than most people in their 80s and 90s, and he’s just 51.

He is a firefighter, emergency medical technician, search and rescue worker, military veteran, Civil War reenactor, ski patrolman, Santa helper, Railtown 1897 State Park docent, airplane pilot, fly fisherman, teacher, husband, father, school volunteer and cancer survivor.

His newest venture will be to work in a brand new program as a scribe for the Sierra Emergency Medical group, helping physicians document patient care. 

He is still training for that job while thinking about getting his commercial pilot’s license so he can take people on fly fishing trips in the wilderness as a side job.

Cowley was born in Oakland, but already had ties to Tuolumne County. His grandparents, Cap and Wynn Cowley, built a cabin in Twain Harte in the late 1930s and moved to their cabin permanently in the 1940s.

Their son, Dan Cowley, moved his family, including Michael, to Twain Harte in the mid-1960s and became prominently involved in Tuolumne County’s real estate market.

“I lived in Mayberry,” Michael Cowley said. “Opie didn’t have anything on me.”

He fondly remembers shoveling snow for Mrs. Eproson at what later became the Eproson House Restaurant on Twain Harte Drive, playing on the railroad tracks, fishing at Lyons Reservoir, visiting the Waltz Family Christmas display on Twain Harte Drive, watching outdoor movies every summer and skating at the roller rink in the middle of the town.

He attended Twain Harte Elementary School and Summerville High School, where he played football under coach Marlen Ronten and met teacher Jim Mendonsa, who taught fire science and rope rescue, among other things.

“Jim Mendonsa really inspired me,” Cowley said. “I was already a rope climber, and I hung out at the Twain Harte Fire Department and watched the fire trucks heading out to fires.”

After he graduated from Summerville High School in 1979, Cowley joined the U.S. Army, where he became an emergency medical technician.

After serving in the Army, he spent some time doing ski patrol work, then went to college on the GI Bill, starting at Columbia College, where he was a member of the Fire Department, vice president of the student body, student representative on the Yosemite College District Board of Trustees and a trophy winning tennis player.

He went on to Cal Stanislaus State, where he thought he would study to become an environmental lawyer until a professor convinced him that, with his medical background and outdoor interests, he wouldn’t be happy as a lawyer.

Instead, he got his paramedic license and spent almost 20 years working in Tuolumne County as an emergency medical technician and training other EMTs.

During those years, he met his future wife, Jessica, at Tuolumne General Hospital, where she was an emergency room nurse. They were married in 2001 and have two sons, Connor, 10, and Kelton, 6.

Almost four years ago, he decided it was time to retire from his highly intense, stressful job. 

“I loved the job,” he said. “It was almost like a calling in life, but I had reached a point where it was time to move on.”

The first thing he did after retiring was get his pilot’s license, hoping someday to incorporate flying and fly fishing into a job, taking people to remote fly fishing sites. A longtime fly fisherman, he ties his own flies and teaches others all aspects of fly fishing.

His favorite fly-fishing story is documented by a framed certificate saying he caught a record 13-pound California halibut in Brookings, Ore., in 1998. 

“That record still stands,” he said.

He flies with a friend, Dr. Chris Mullins, who works at the Sonora Regional Medical Center emergency department. “He’s a bush pilot,” Cowley said. “We just look for a spot that seems safe and land there. It’s so much fun.”

Some of their landing spots are dry lake beds, river beds, sand bars and sloping mountain tops.

Another activity he took up about the time he retired was being part of a Civil War reenactment group. He is part of the 20th Maine Company G, Army of the Potomac, 1861-62, which was famous for its role in the Battle of Gettysburg.

He also became a docent at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. Among his volunteer duties are hosting train tours and being Santa’s helper during the holiday season.

He founded and still choreographs the arrival of Santa Claus by helicopter every year at Standard Park, and he volunteers one day a week at Soulsbyville School, where his children attend. Jessica volunteers too.

After a lifetime of helping others through frightening experiences, Cowley found himself undergoing surgery for prostate cancer at Stanford Medical Center in March 2012.

He said he will have to keep close watch on his health in the future but is optimistic he will be OK.

He intends to be active in Relay for Life, an annual American Cancer Society fundraising event held in May at Sonora High School.

“I’ll be around to meet my grandchildren,” he said. “I intend to live long enough to be a crotchety old man.”

Does he plan to stop any of his extracurricular activities now that he is starting a new job? 

No way.

“I may be a little hyperactive,” he said. “I have to keep busy.”