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McGowan to share experience at SJV event

FAIRMONT– St. John Vianney School and The Knights of Columbus are partnering up for the 17th annual Dinner/Dance on Jan. 29. It will feature SJV alumnus Tim McGowan as the keynote speaker.

The McGowan family first began attending SJV when it moved to Fairmont in 1961. Don and Donna McGowan had three children: Jerry, Patti and Tim. When the trio started at SJV, they couldn’t have known it would spark a long-standing tradition of having McGowan children attending the school.

“My great-nephew just graduated from there. We had a McGowan attending for over 60 years,” Tim McGowan said.

In addition to having kids enrolled at the school, McGowan shared that his grandpa Patrick was a custodian for awhile and his sister, Patti, still does the Kid-Stop program after school.

McGowan admitted that since he’s received the invitation to speak, he hadn’t really reflected back on his time at SJV, but he welcomed the opportunity to do so.

McGowan graduated from SJV in 1974 and then went off to Fairmont High School. He graduated from there in 1978.

“I went to St. Cloud State and did earth and general science. I was a science teacher,” McGowan said.

He began teaching in Elk River, MN and then moved to Highlands Ranch, CO and taught there. McGowan explained that at the time he wanted to be the next big basketball coach so he went where opportunities to pursue that presented themselves.

“Then I moved to the University of Iowa where I did my grad work in 1990 to 1992,” McGowan said.

He obtained his Master’s Degree in Human Development and Counseling. Then McGowan became a school counselor and he said his journey since then has weaved out of that.

“I landed in the Black Hills of South Dakota,” McGowan said.

He would work as a school counselor in Rapid City for several years. That job led to many more opportunities. McGowan explained that within two hours of Rapid City are three reservations.

In 2015, a suicide contagion on an area reservation garnered national attention. McGowan had developed a relationship with and worked with Pine Ridge High School and administration during his time as a school counselor. He was approached in 2016 and asked if he would help work on the contagion.

So in 2016 he retired from Rapid City Area Schools to focus on his new work.

“I threw caution to the wind and started working with Pine Ridge and that led to one job to another and another. There’s a great network of people within that and word spreads pretty quickly,” McGowan said.

Now, McGowan said he has two lives. He works with students and staff on reservations to help them do prevention programming. He’s usually with a school for two to three years.

“Right now I’m working with schools in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Arizona,” McGowan explained.

As long as schools and reservations stay open, McGowan is on the road, spending weeks at a time at the different schools.

This work also lead him to his “other life.” McGowan works with a research team from the University of Rochester in New York on a Department of Defense funded project.

“It’s our job to get ahead of military suicides and do it in a different mode than has been done historically,” McGowan explained.

He said in 2017 they developed, implemented and researched a project called Wingman Connect. The work was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in Oct. 2020 for being groundbreaking work.

McGowan explained what got him into that line of work.

“We had a suicide contagion back in Rapid City in 2006-2009. I was school counselor at a middle school and asked to come to a high school and I took the lead of the programming to navigate us out of that,” he said.

In 2010, they were noticed by a lot of people for getting out of the contagion by putting the power in the students through peer mentoring and peer leadership.

“I was asked to speak at a conference in Colorado in 2010. Dr. Wyman, the lead researcher from the University of Rochester ,was there also to learn this method of what was going on. We became colleagues and friends,” McGowan said.

Wyman ended up landing the Department of Defense project in 2017 and asked McGowan if he wanted to be the trainer with it.

“I jumped on and started training with them. We were full speed by 2018,” McGowan said.

He had been going to Texas every two weeks to work with two different squadrons, which had the highest suicide rates of personnel once they left tech school.

“We were actually in Texas when the world shut down in 2020. We don’t have phones on during the day when we’re on base. We walked out one day, on March 9, to go to a restaurant, and found out the sports world was shut down and there was no toilet paper at the stores so we scrambled to get home. It was a weird time,” McGowan said.

After that, the Department of Defense asked if they could duplicate their results online, remotely.

“We spent the majority of 2020 developing and implementing a new, online version,” McGowan said.

The new program is being analyzed and McGowan said once they get the clearance, they’ll be back on bases. He said Covid forced them to go down a road they hadn’t planned on, but also gave them the opportunity to develop programming that’s strong enough to use remotely if needed.

McGowan said he finds himself busier these days than he imagined he would be, but he takes joy in helping others.

“I had a timeframe where I couldn’t wrap my brain around how this was happening and how it unfolded. I had to settle into the realization that I had a great opportunity to serve people and quit questioning it and just do it,” McGowan said.

What he’s learned in his research done in 2020 and 2021 and looking back at 1970 and what happened at SJV, McGowan found a few connections.

He said the model used universally is that someone has to struggle before they get support, but in his work, they look at it from a prevention-based model.

“What can we do collectively together when someone starts to struggle so it doesn’t become so severe. All of us at times of struggle have had someone close to us there to help us,” McGowan explained.

He said everyone has someone whether it be parents, siblings, grandparents, teachers or counselors who can support them.

“Not only is it the people, but how we envision ourselves in the world. The big pieces of that come down to family, faith and community,” McGowan said.

He said he can reflect back 50 years and see what he had starting out.

“Every step of my journey, from kindergarten to now, there has been a significant person who has been a great mentor. I wouldn’t be doing this work if I did’t have those people supporting me,” McGowan said.

McGowan has made a life out of supporting other people and he’s thankful for those who have supported him. One of whom includes his wife.

When he retired from Rapid City Schools, he met his wife, Jen, who works for the state of Wyoming.

“We decided in 2018 to put our lives together so I got remarried and we have a blended family. We each had two and two so we have four kids all over the place,” McGowan explained.

When he’s not working, McGowan said they enjoy spending time outdoors hiking. They also visit their children and grandchildren across the country, as they have some located in Ohio and California.

McGowan is looking forward to coming back to Fairmont as most of his family is still in the area. He said he hasn’t had the opportunity to come home since before the start of the pandemic.

Dinner tickets and additional information are available by contacting the St. John Vianney School office at 235-5304.

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