Group wants new Lexington high school named for slain firefighter Brenda Cowan

Firefighter Brenda Cowan
Firefighter Brenda Cowan

Brad Morris was driving an ambulance on Feb. 13, 2004, when he and other paramedics and firefighters responded to a domestic violence call on Adams Lane in rural southern Fayette County.

His co-worker, Lt. Brenda Cowan, Lexington’s first black female firefighter, was gunned down that day by a man who shot and killed his wife before paramedics arrived.

Morris, now retired, is leading an effort to name Lexington’s new high school, set to open in August 2017, after Cowan.

“Five days after making officer, she was shot and killed,” said Morris.

“Brenda was the very definition of servant leadership. She was loved by all for her hard work, her faith, and most importantly, her compassion towards others.”

The effort is at least the third initiative for naming Fayette County’s sixth high school on Winchester Road that has emerged in the last few weeks.

There are separate movements to name it after pioneering local basketball coach S.T. Roach or abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Senior U.S. District Judge Joseph Hood, retired Keeneland president Nick Nicholson, businessmen Jim Host and Alan Stein, and others have begun a campaign to name the high school for Roach, who built the segregated Dunbar High School into a basketball powerhouse and was at the forefront of integrating the high school game in Kentucky.

The effort to name the school Douglass is being led by alumni of the old Frederick Douglass High School on Price Road.

Once the principal of the new high school is chosen, a committee will help decide the school’s name after reviewing suggestions from the public. The community leaders began their initiative this week.

Morris said he started a Facebook group called Brenda Cowan High School at noon Saturday. About noon Sunday, the group had 1,139 members.

“No high school is named after a woman in Lexington,” Morris said. “It’s high time we change that for my daughters’ sake, and all women in our great city. “

Former Lexington Mayor Teresa Isaac said she had respect for the people named in the other proposals being considered, but she is helping with the Cowan effort.

“She was a real role model for young people in Lexington and she actually gave her life for this city,” said Isaac.

Isaac said she thought it would be appropriate to name a school for a black female leader “from this community because she really broke a lot of barriers in the fire department.”

Cowan was a trained paramedic, a University of Kentucky graduate and the sister of Fred Cowan, a member of UK’s 1978 national championship team. She had been promoted to lieutenant and assigned to Fire Station #18 about a week before her death, according to Herald-Leader archives.

When Cowan, 40, and her crew on Engine Co. No. 18 were called to a report of a female down in the yard at Adams Lane, the Urban County Government website said, they carefully approached the scene on foot since they were unsure of what had happened to the woman. Just as the crew reached the patient several shots rang out without warning from a nearby home striking both Lt. Cowan and Firefighter Jim Sandford. The crew attempted to radio for help but communications in the area were poor at the time and the was a delay in summoning more help or even warning incoming emergency workers.

Help was finally able to reach the stricken crew but it was too late for Cowan. She died of a gunshot wound to the chest. Another firefighter was also wounded by Patrick Hutchinson, who was firing a rifle through an open window of the home. Firefighter Jim Sandford suffered a gunshot wound to the head and was airlifted from the scene to the University of Kentucky Hospital where he recovered.

“Let’s make this happen,” a post from Sandford said on the Cowan Facebook group page. “Brenda deserves to have her name immortalized on something of importance and substance. I miss her and pray for the Cowan family.”

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears

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