In high school, Cowger had aspired to play baseball at Kansas State University, but a counselor suggested he look into GM’s nearby Fairfax assembly plant instead. “You know, you have a lot of technical capability, and you really ought to go down and talk to General Motors,” Cowger recalled the counselor telling him.
So he enrolled in the General Motors Institute — now called Kettering University — and did co-op work at the Fairfax plant, where he molded seats and hung doors.
After earning his bachelor’s degree from GMI in 1970 and a master’s in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1978, Cowger’s jobs at GM included manager of the Lordstown, Ohio, assembly complex and Cadillac’s manufacturing chief. At the Lordstown plant, long a hotbed of labor strife, Cowger eased tensions.
“It was unheard of for a plant manager to come over there,” Jim Graham, who was president of UAW Local 1112 in Lordstown, told Automotive News in 1998. “Cowger demanded that management sit down with the union on a weekly basis. We had an open line of communication.”