Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life

Written by Teresa Cage Beasley.

Mike McGowan's mantra

Mike McGowan’s mantra is “Make the rest of your life the best of your life.” McGowan has devoted his life to music, first as a student, then as a teacher, performer, and composer. His love for music started when his dad gave him a mandolin.

“My dad was an insurance adjuster, and he brought home a mandolin from a storm salvage,” he says. The young McGowan taught himself to play the instrument, and it became immediately obvious to his parents that their son had a natural talent for music.

In junior high school he joined the band and played saxophone. While still in high school, he taught himself to play keyboards. “By my sophomore or junior year in high school, I knew I wanted a career in music,” he says. “I grew up in the ’60s listening to the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix and others. But when Ray Charles brought his Big Band to Jonesboro and my parents took me to the concert, it opened my eyes to a different sound.”

By the 1970s, bands like Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago were sharing the Top 40 spotlight with Rhythm and Blues bands. McGowan loved it all and learned to play a wide spectrum of popular music.

“I was about 15 years old when I played my first gig in a black club on the Arkansas Riverfront,” he says. “We went down and played with a blues band, and once you’re young and start playing gigs, you’re hooked.”

His weekend gigs never interfered with his responsibilities as a high school band member. “I was lucky enough in high school to have a great band director. Ron Bryant was an active composer and arranger. We had a great jazz band in high school, and we went to the National High School Jazz Festival in Mobile, Alabama,” he says.

Summer band camp at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro led McGowan to that university where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Music Education. Throughout his college years, he continued to work part time in a music store, playing gigs with his band nights and weekends, and carrying a full load of classes. He went on to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he completed a Master’s Degree in Music Composition and Theory.

After completing his degrees, McGowan taught at Texarkana College, spent a year working as a musician in Florida, and then moved to Texas where he joined the staff at Atlanta High School. Five years later he moved to Corrigan-Camden High School, before accepting the band director’s position at Tatum High School.

Four years later, the job came open at Panola College. “I was one of many applicants for the position, but I lived in the county and I had the experience they were looking for, so I was hired,” he said. McGowan spent the next 17 years as professor of instrumental music and band director at Panola College. He retired at the end of the 2015 spring semester, although he continues to teach an online course as an adjunct professor.

“Panola College gave me a laboratory to write music and try out new ideas with the talented musicians I had as my students,” he says. “Over the past 10 years, I became more and more confident with my writing and composition…it was as if the stars came into alignment.”

When asked to recall highlights from his Panola College career, McGowan said, “The shows we did with Sandra Bauer were excellent. She is a delightful and talented musician in her own right and I was privileged to be able to work with her. I think the outdoor concerts we held were also so much fun and something different for the College. I also enjoyed the courses with field trips to New Orleans and St. Louis. It is so gratifying to teach students about music and then to take them to the cities where these unique sounds originated.”

McGowan decided to retire this year, a few months before his 60th birthday. “I want the rest of my life to be the best of my life,” he says. That meant more than continuing to work with his music. McGowan wanted to make positive changes in his lifestyle and health.

“I’m probably in the best physical shape right now that I’ve ever been in,” he says. “It was time to do it. Making the decision was a big factor in what I’ve been able to accomplish.  I’ve always reacted to programs because I am a competitive person. I like the accountability of programs. So when I saw the Panola County Biggest Loser contest, I decided to get involved. I wanted to win.”

Win it, he did, and in a big way. McGowan shed more than 80 pounds, surpassing all other contestants in the event. He didn’t just cut down on his calories. He adopted an active lifestyle that continues today. Almost any morning of the week, you can see him on his Trek bicycle somewhere on the vast network of Panola County roads. Sometimes he rides to Lake Murvaul to watch the sunrise. But it’s more than just riding a bicycle that has helped him get into shape and stay that way.

“I get up in the morning, work out for an hour doing exercises for 30 minutes and then weights for 30 minutes,” he says. “After that, I get on my bike and ride. I don’t have a set goal for each day. I try to ride anywhere from 100 to 175 miles a week. When you get on the road, it clears your mind.”

McGowan would like to start a Panola County Biking Club, and has made a few contacts with others interested in joining him. In addition to riding on county roads, he has a different bike for mountain biking. He says the trails at Martin Lake and Tyler State Park are great for mountain biking.

He credits Vickie Lacy, Panola County Extension Agent, as a key member of his support group. Others include John Solan, a personal trainer and doctor of psychology, and Gina Smith, massage therapist who owns Massage Kneads.

McGowan believes he is living the best of his life right now. This year he and wife Karen celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. He spends his days doing exactly what he wants to do – working out, riding his bicycle and composing music. On weekends, he plays piano and sax with the Swinghouse small group jazz combo, performing three or four gigs a month at private parties, weddings, and at the Los Pinos Ranch Vineyard in Pittsburgh and the Liberty Bell restaurant in Nacogdoches.

“I’m healthier and happier right now than I was 10 years ago,” he says. “I truly want the rest of my life to be the best of my life.”