A Tale of Two ‘Brothers’

Emery Nelson was a boy of 9 when he met his mentor Ryan Cowen through Big Brothers. Now they are colleagues as middle school teachers.
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

That’s the guy, Emery Nelson thought.

He saw the man from the playground while playing with his friends at a park near his home.

Emery’s mother walked with the man from her house to the park to meet her son.

“I remember the excitement,” Nelson said. “There was a lot of anticipation.”

Nelson was 9 at the time and had lived in Wisconsin for two years after moving from New Hampshire to be closer to his mother’s extended family soon after his parents divorced. The image of that man, Nelson said nearly a quarter-century later, will be seared into his brain for life.

That man was Ryan Cowen, then a young adult. It was the first time he had volunteered to be a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ozaukee County.

“I was excited about it,” he said.

The two went back to Nelson’s house and chatted on the front porch.

“We just hit it off,” Nelson said.

“He’s such a nice kid,” Cowen said.

The mentor-mentee relationship built over time and continues to this day in a way the two Port Washington residents never imagined.

After starting in different careers, they both found their passions lie in education. Cowen teaches sixth-grade science at Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Nelson teaches technical education at the same school.

Nelson applied for the job in his hometown a couple of years ago after starting his teaching career in Milwaukee Public Schools. He thought about contacting Cowen but waited until he got the job.

“I was just very excited to know he’d be a colleague and a friend,” Cowen said. “I had the utmost confidence he would do a good job.”

Looking back, Nelson said, Cowen helped shape his interests from childhood to now.

“One of the big things was a spirit of environmentalism,” he said. “Access to nature isn’t easy for a lot of people. Having Ryan in my life, who got so much joy from that, stood out.”

Cowen, who takes annual summer trips to the Boundary Waters with students, said enjoying nature is more important today since children are buried in video games. He taught Nelson how to fish, from tying a fisherman’s knot to filleting a fish.

Nelson remembers he named his first fish, a big carp, Beefy, and he put it in a pond at Cowen’s house. The second fish Nelson caught was Beefy Jr.

The pair bonded over more than baiting a hook and bodies of water. They went hiking, saw movies and Cowen helped Nelson with his homework. Often, they would go bowling and get pizza later in downtown Port Washington.

After they were paired through Big Brothers Big Sisters, the two would get together for a couple of hours at a time once or twice per month. Cowen said Big Brothers Big Sisters was good at checking in to see how things were going.

Nelson remembers having “a ton of fun” doing things he wouldn’t do otherwise.

The rewards went two ways. Cowen, who didn’t have children of his own yet, got to see the look on Nelson’s face when he caught his first fish and have a young person look up to him.

He was chosen as Big Brother of the Year in 2004, the fifth year of his and Nelson’s match.

Cowen had a similar void to fill as a child. His parents divorced when he was in middle school and his Uncle Keith Cowen took him under his wing, teaching him how to fish.

For Nelson, whatever Cowen taught him about fishing is all he knows. Igniting a passion for the outdoors is something he wants to pass on to his children.

After a trial run of being around a child, Cowen jokes, he “still went and had them.” His son and daughter are in high school.

Nelson went on to have a family as well and has two boys, ages 6 and 4.

Ryan continues to look up to Cowen, now as a professional. Cowen helped Nelson get reacquainted with his old middle school.

The two still reminisce, but now about half of their conversations revolve around teaching.

Nelson used to teach special education and switched to tech ed this year. Woodworking, he said, isn’t one of his strengths yet; all the tricks of the trade came from Cowen.

“It’s helpful to know that when I need help he’s here,” he said.

The two took different routes to become teachers. Cowen worked in construction and attended Milwaukee Area Technical College, the Washington County UW branch, UW-Stevens Point, Lakeland College and Cardinal Stritch. He has

bachelor’s degrees in biology and environmental education and a master’s degree in instructional technology.

Nelson earned an engineering degree from Marquette University and worked in the energy industry for a few years before getting his master’s degree in special education.

Now, with young people looking up to them each day, both can see how Big Brothers Big Sisters could benefit students in their classrooms.

Nelson said he talks to children in the program and can help connect them wtih other adults who can make them feel like they belong.

“Beyond the obvious — you’re helping that kid and you learn from that child — it’s part of the larger fabric of the community,” Nelson said.

For more information on Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ozaukee County, visit bbbsoz.org.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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