Martha Jo Lee McDowell, educator and civic leader, was well-known for her position within East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University-Commerce) as a teacher, administrator, and wife of the seventh president of the university. She was born to John Bunyan Lee (1889–1966) and Sallie Lois (Lander) Lee (1887–1931) on March 5, 1917, in New Hope, Texas. She had one sister, Virginia Helton, and one brother, John A Lee. A Mesquite High School valedictorian, Martha Lee also held the highest average of her graduating class at East Texas State University (ETSU). While at ETSU she worked as a secretary for four men who were or would become presidents of the university. Upon completion of her master’s degree in business administration in 1969, she taught shorthand and report writing classes within the College of Business.
While they were students at ETSU during the same period, Martha and her future husband did not meet until both had graduated and were working at the university. On November 12, 1942, Martha Jo Lee married F. H. “Bub” McDowell. The couple had one child, Susan McDowell Wood, who became a graduate of ETSU, a noted poet, and a professor at Rice University in Houston.
F.H. “Bub” McDowell became the seventh president of ETSU on May 12, 1972, and was the first university alumnus to hold that office. Martha McDowell used her position and their new home to help various organizations and to elicit more publicity for the school. Upon moving into the president’s home in May 1973, the couple immediately began to open it to student organizations, faculty groups, civic clubs, and the ETSU Board of Regents as well as official visitors to the university. They doubled the area for entertaining and made the garage into a kitchen in addition to adding an outdoor garden entertainment area. In May 1975 the Iranian ambassador to the United States invited the couple to fly the inaugural flight of Air Iran and spend May 15 to May 22 in his country with several other dignitaries.
Martha McDowell earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from ETSU and the university bestowed upon her an honorary doctorate of humane letters degree. She was greatly involved in the Commerce community, both as a representative of the university and upon her husband’s retirement. She served as one of the first female trustees for the Commerce Independent School District and was active in several business associations, business education groups, and the First Christian Church, where she served as a deaconess and a Sunday School teacher.
A scholarship in her name to the university, the Martha Jo McDowell Memorial Scholarship, established by the University Dames. The business building on campus was named for the couple after Bub’s retirement in honor of their work and influence on campus as well. After he retired as university president, two funds were created in the couple’s honor, the Bub and Martha Jo McDowell Memorial Scholarship Endowment.
Martha Jo McDowell received the Distinguished Citizen in Commerce Award in 1973. She was also honored with ETSU’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1978. She sponsored the Marpessa Social Life Club, an organization dedicated to teaching young women about etiquette and how to live a cultured life. She was also involved with the Afflatus Culture Club, the University Dames, the National Business Education Association, Christian Women’s Fellowship, Phi Chi Theta, and P.E.O. International Sisterhood (Philanthropic Educational Organization). She served as a chapter advisor to Gamma Phi Beta and was a member of the board of directors for the Hunt County American Cancer Society. Martha Jo Lee McDowell worked with ETSU for almost forty-five years as a secretary, university faculty member, presidential spouse, advocate of the university’s history, and community leader. She died on December 28, 1987, and was buried in Rosemound Cemetery in Commerce.