Seeing a Life of Service

Authors: Charee Godwin-Smith, AccentWest Magazine

Keywords: serving others, experiences, EXIT Program, life skills, independence, giving back

Abstract: First printed in Accent West Magazine in January 2023 (reprinted with permission), this article describes the journey of a young man who loses his vision but continues to focus his life on serving others.
An adult accepts a plaque from an adult wearing a shirt with a Silverton Firefighter badge.

Rowdy receiving Firefighter of the Year Award from Silverton Fire Chief JoDee Robinson in 2022.

An adult in full firefighter gear stands next to a fire truck labeled Silverton Fire Department in an open field.

Rowdy, Silverton Volunteer Fire Fighter, is prepared!

“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” Helen Keller

To the town of Silverton, Rowdy Cogdell sees life exactly the way it should be: an opportunity to serve others. That’s why he was recognized last month as Silverton’s Firefighter of the Year. But to the casual observer, Rowdy Cogdell is blind, unable to see the world around him. Born with a congenital eye defect that caused detached retinas in both eyes, Rowdy’s parents knew he’d have to work a little harder as he achieved his goals. “We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy road for him when we found out about his condition at four months of age,” said Toy Cogdell, Rowdy’s mother. “But my mother, Twila Whitten, was a school teacher and she went back to school to learn braille and get certified as a Visual Impairment Teacher in order to teach him and modify his school work while he was in school.”

Rowdy’s sight was restored to some degree after surgeries, but there was always the awareness that it would deteriorate with age. So, the Cogdell family gave him all the experiences they could while he had the most sight. And Rowdy took advantage of every second. He set his sights (literally and figuratively) on being a first responder when he was just a child. He used his first four-wheeler, decked out with red lights, to patrol his family’s ranch while wearing an orange security vest. He went on patrol to catch anyone doing something he deemed unlawful. “Later I got a go-cart and put an amber rotating light on it,” he said, “I’d run patrol and try to pull over semis coming on the ranch. I wanted to be a policeman so bad!” His love for first responders carried all the way through his high school years when he drove a utility pickup around the ranch, also with red and blue lights and law enforcement stickers. “We used to say that his little guardian angels were ready for him to go to bed at night, because he pretty much did everything everyone else did,” said Toy.

Two staff members at Camp Villa help a young man put on the harness for the zipline.

Rowdy gets ready for the zipline at Camp Villa!

A young adult wearing a harness and safety helmet hangs from the zipline.

Rowdy on the zipline at summer camp

But when he was a senior at Silverton High School, he attended a job fair in Amarillo and learned through talking to the various agencies that his lack of eyesight meant he couldn’t attend the academies or become a first responder on staff. Undeterred, Rowdy still talked to Silverton Fire Chief, JoDee Robinson, about volunteer opportunities in the future. “My love for people is important to me,” he said. “And I just want to help others. My dad taught me to be nice and kind to others, so that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.” Ready to achieve more goals, Rowdy left for Austin to attend the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired after he graduated from high school. There he learned basic life skills through their EXIT Program designed to prepare adult students for post-school life. Through the school, he began working in a coffee shop and realized that he would like to own his own coffee shop someday.

An adolescent and adult stand next to a longhorn bull at an outside event.

Rowdy and a TSBVI staff member attend the annual cowboy breakfast to kick off the Rodeo in Austin.

Two adolescents and an adult wearing safety helmets and gloves plant a tree in a wide open field.

While a student at TSBVI, Rowdy volunteered to help reforest the fire damaged Bastrop State Park during the 2016 M.L.K Annual Day of Service.

Upon returning to Silverton in 2016, Rowdy’s eyesight deteriorated to only light perception. Again, trusting that God would provide a way, he teamed up with Tammy Penn, a local artist, to open Night Owl Espresso & Tea Bar inside Ghost Horse Art Gallery. The two had a soft opening with standing room only—and that same night the fire department announced that they’d accepted Rowdy into the department. “I talked to the city manager and the city council about the legal ramifications before we accepted him into the department,” said JoDee Robinson, Silverton Fire Chief. “Insurance told us what we could and couldn’t allow him to do, and I’m pretty sure we are one of the very few departments that has a blind fireman.” 

And the whole fire department is inspired by Rowdy’s can-do attitude. “He’s an inspiration to the other guys because nothing stops him,” said JoDee. “He never lets anything hold him back, and that pushes him to try harder too.” Using his hospitality skills and his attentive hearing, Rowdy provides radio communications and command vehicle support at every fire scene. He goes on calls as long as he has someone with him and is the self-appointed fundraiser for equipment and other items needed. “My next fundraiser is going to be to build a new fire station. Ours is old, and we really need something that serves our community better,” said Rowdy. “I have been given a life I never thought I’d have. I have a house and a wife, and I get to do the things I love. God has given me so much that I just want to give back.”

These days you can also find Rowdy running around town with his wife Taylor. After years of being single and having little luck in the dating world, Rowdy and Taylor connected through the Facebook dating feature and realized they lived only 15 minutes apart. “I prayed that God would lead me to a man who would check all my boxes,” said Taylor. “And Rowdy is that man. He’s just so handsome, and nothing holds him back. He’s not afraid to try or do anything. I’m the type of person who needs encouragement, so that was really attractive to me.”

A husband and wife pose in a wide open field.

Rowdy and Taylor

Everyone agrees on one thing when it comes to Rowdy: He loves God and he loves people, and he lives a life of service. “He may not have his eyes,” said Taylor. “But he has a voice. And even if he wasn’t dealt the best cards, he tries his best to make sure he uses all his cards to help others.”

Godwin-Smith, C. (2023, January). “Seeing a Life of Service.” Accent West Magazine. 12-13.

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