COUNCIL BLUFFS — Anna Jo Cowan's face lights up when she tells a story about her father.
“He was a big kid. He acted like a 5-year-old. He would cut out comics that reminded him of me. We'd find them taped all over the house,” she said.
The other story involving her father is much harder for her to tell:
“My father was killed in a head-on collision by a drunk driver who crossed the center line on March 30 in Nebraska. He was not there when I attended my first prom. He was not there when I turned 16 and started driving. He will not be there to watch me graduate, and he will not be there to walk me down the aisle at my wedding.”
Anna Jo's mother, Michelle Cowan, said Joe Cowan, 55, was driving home when his vehicle was hit by another as he drove through Bennington, just north of Omaha. She said the other driver, who also died, had spent the day drinking at an Omaha lounge and “had just come from a bar. Her blood-alcohol content was almost twice the legal limit.”
That's why Anna Jo Cowan took on her mission.
“I just don't want someone else going through what I'm going through,” she said.
The 16-year-old Council Bluffs junior chose to undertake a project for a Talented and Gifted seminar at Abraham Lincoln High School to research and draft a law to present to Nebraska state lawmakers.
It would “require all liquor and retail establishments to be civilly liable when the establishment over serves a patron to the point of intoxication and that patron is then involved in an alcohol-related accident killing or injuring an innocent third party.”
It's called a dram shop law, and she hopes to see the Nebraska Legislature take up the issue when it convenes in January.
The term “dram shop” pertains to a place in which alcohol is served and is a reference to the fluid dram, which is one-eighth of a fluid ounce.
Dram is also used informally to mean a small amount of Scotch whisky or other liquid.
Anna Jo has been in contact with key lawmakers such as State Sen. Brad Ashford, who is on the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
“My dad always told me, ‘Don't do things halfway,' ” she said.
She learned in her research that 42 other states, including Iowa, have dram shop laws, but that the current Nebraska law pertains only to minors.
Lorraine Duitsman, a teacher at Abraham Lincoln, said Anna Jo could have chosen a much easier subject, but “she wanted to do something so her father wouldn't be forgotten.”
“I started the project Aug. 13 when the school year started,” Anna Jo said, although she and her mother had been talking about the issue all summer.
“It helps me cope, and I would like to try to prevent this from happening to others,” she said.
Her mother agreed.
“A law would be a good way to honor him. Her dad would want her to put her energy into something positive,” Michelle Cowan said.
“I have a pessimistic outlook on life sometimes,” Anna Jo said.
On the other hand, her mother sees a strong father-daughter resemblance in Anna Jo.
“She's like her dad. She's gifted academically, but she likes to have fun. I see a lot of him in her sense of humor,” Michelle Cowan said.
Mother and daughter share a deep sense of pain and loss, both emotional and financial, but said they try to cope in public and grieve in private.
Anna Jo has spent a lot of time and energy researching the project and will give a presentation for the Project Extra Mile coalition at the La Vista Police Department Wednesday.
Nebraska might get that law. Former Nebraska State Sen. Lowen Kruse has spoken with the Cowan women and said Anna Jo “has a solid plan, and she presents it well.”
According to Kruse, “If this bill had been in force, her dad would still be alive. Clearly if the bartender had held back, it would have been a different scenario.”
But Anna Jo's work “is good stuff, focused. I predict a victory. I predict she will win,” Kruse said.
“Then all my hard work will be worth it,” Anna Jo said. “No child should have to go through losing a parent because of a senseless death.”