Richard Louv

Recipient of the Audubon Medal

Author of the International Bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

From the Blog

The Bowman Echo: Remembering JB

When I was asked by John Bowman’s family to write this remembrance, I was honored and daunted. And I knew it would be a longer piece than usually appears in this space. How does one sum up the life of a man who has never quit living? Even now, his daughter Molly says she senses her father’s presence. When she writes, he urges her to use just the right word. Reflecting him, she most often uses the word love.

In the 1990s, a visitor walking into the subdued light of Stroud Tackle, on San Diego’s Morena Boulevard, would have felt transported to a slower, more personal time.

Bill and Eileen Stroud, aging but not old, would have stood like squinting officers on a bridge deck, the identity of the true captain unclear. Behind the counter, grinning, with an unlit pipe clenched in his teeth, would have been the chief volunteer and raconteur John Bowman.

In semi-fictional retirement, JB, as he was often called, spent many of his non-teaching hours either fishing or helping Bill and Eileen. With his neatly trimmed, startlingly white beard and aviator glasses, JB looked like a healthy Hemingway.

He appreciated that comparison, but it fell short.

“You can tell a lot about people by fishing with ‘em. Places, too,” he liked to say. “I love to watch people fish; I love to watch fly-fishermen. Especially my son, he’s a hell of a caster.” He scribbled a phone number on a piece of paper.

“You go see Conway. He’ll tell you something about fishing.”

In those years, Conway was making a reputation by fly-fishing for sharks from an 18-foot aluminum boat a dozen miles off the San Diego coast, where an upwell of warm water brought sharks to the surface. Strictly catch and release. Later, Conway became a legendary guide and host of a national television fishing show. One day, the visitor did go fishing with Conway. Over the noise of the engine and the pounding of the hull, Conway shared an early memory:

“I remember my father, this big man walking into the kitchen with albacore as long as his leg. I’d watch the way he cleaned the fish with authority. I’d sit on the floor and just look at him. We’d go fishing every weekend. He’d get me up when it was still dark. The mornings always smelled like pipe tobacco. I remember his Ford Falcon, and his hat, and his red-checkered Filson jacket, and his boots. I still have those boots. He didn’t use them anymore, so I just took them. Up until a few years ago, I used to wear them when I fished. They’re in my closet now.”

He recalled catching a trout, and a childhood fishing baptism. “I went into the water after the fish. Just to play with it, you know. This was the middle of February; it was probably 32 degrees out. I remember him getting into the water and just taking me, you know, and running me up to the car and putting me in the car and taking me home. With the fish of course.”

After a long illness which never conquered his spirit, John passed on June 26, 2020, with his loving family at his side. A few days later, Conway found the obituary his father had written for himself, which John intended “for newspaper and USD magazine.”

“I wish my life to be remembered for my fatherhood, marriage, and very importantly my teaching career. I desire NO military recognition beyond my having served in the Air Force,” he wrote. True to form, he requested “no open mic for general comments, as these things can go on indefinitely.” And here, he said, were the basic facts, in his words:

“John J. Bowman: Born October 2, 1926 in San Diego. Attended numerous local schools; graduated from the University of San Diego, College for Men in 1960 with a degree in English; received a master’s degree in 1974. He served in the United States Army Air Force in the waning days of WWII. A high school teacher for 40 years, he taught English and history, as well as coaching football, cross-country, baseball, and track and field; he also directed numerous high school plays at St. Augustine and Ramona high schools. He was an avid fly fisherman and bird hunter. But perhaps the one educational achievement he valued above all others lay in his having taught thousands of youngsters the joy and learning provided in the reading of good books. He was an active member of the American Legion and Knights of Columbus. He is survived by his spouse, Marion; children: daughters Bernadette; Molly (Styles); Eileen (Sylwestrazk); and son Conway, his wife Michelle (Woo) and grandson, Max.”

Conway’s second child, Jackson, makes no appearance in this obituary because John wrote it before Jackson was born. John and his dear wife, Marion doted over the grandchildren. Doted is probably not a sufficient word. Embraced, clowned, chased, hugged, taught, learned from and loved. Just as he had loved his own children.

And, sometimes in a more intimidating way, he loved his students. Even after they had entered their middle age, so many of them came to see him or called him, again and again, to feel that supportive care one more time. Molly estimates that her father has stayed in touch with over 1,000 students. Someone set up a Facebook page for him, and hundreds of them followed him, even after his passing.

After four decades of teaching high school, he retired. Then he taught for six more years.

His kindness extended far beyond the home and classroom. “When my Dad saw a young man at football practice wearing tattered cleats, he gave him the pair of cleats he wore as a USD freshman because the young man’s family could not afford such a luxury,” she says. “Our home was a sanctuary for several young men who encountered trouble at home. One student lived with us for an entire summer! My dad’s life was shaped by the kindness of others, mentors he refers to in his book as his ‘angels.’ In turn, Dad has been an angel to countless family members, students and friends. I could not be more blessed by my dad’s love, compassion and his uncanny perception of the goodness in people.”

One of the youngsters he mentored was my younger son, Matthew, whom John referred to as Dr. Droll. In a letter home, relating to another matter, Matthew once wrote, “Love is more important than words, but words help.” That’s a suitable description of John’s passions.

How John lived is best told by the family, students and friends.

Jennifer F. Skains wrote on Facebook that a “complement from Mr. Bowman was rare,” but when it came it left a profound impression: “I remember something he told me once that I have tried to live up to ever since. One night at a football game I went to buy some food and realized I had forgotten my ASB card. He was operating the cash register that night and gave me a discount anyway. He said, ‘If I can’t trust you, who can I trust?’” There’s something about that cryptic question/statement, a challenge to be trustworthy, an assumption to be realized.

John’s affection and respect often seemed balanced on a thin line between exasperation and admiration.

Former student Charles Moore, who wrote that he’d been “bawling like a baby on and off” since he learned of John’s passing, said this of John: “I disagreed with him so often, both in the past and the present, but I never doubted his love for those whose lives he touched… He suffered no fool, but sought to overcome foolishness with reason and compassion. At least he did with me. I’ve realized every day a little more what a fool I can be, and that is due a lot to his gruff voice playing in the back of my head.”

Call it the Bowman Echo. “I can still hear your voice every time I sit down to write,” Elaine Jennings posted. “And thanks to a painful freshman English project, I have also retained a ridiculous amount of random trivia knowledge including ‘who wrote Spoon River Anthology?’ and ‘what is the Diet of Worms?’ which serve little purpose other than to make me smile when I think about them. … I will keep this short because I can already hear you say, ‘Jennings, this is too verbose, how can you say this in fewer words?’ So then… May you continue to look down on us from heaven with that twinkle in your eye.” And, she might have added, to speak to her, over her shoulder.

His influence bounces across generations. Mechele Valencia: “You were the first real teacher who took a vested interest in me and believed in my dreams when I wasn’t sure I could succeed.” Linda Krasner: “Today we lost a great man and God has a new reading buddy. John ‘Poppy’ Bowman was another Father to me since I was 15… When our twins were born, you even drove me back and forth to the hospital many times just to get a glimpse of them.” Kristen Vengler: “Thank you JB, more than you ever knew. Light up the Heavens and enjoy perfect grammar.”

Mark Smith wrote about John’s impact years long after class was over: “One summer we crossed paths at Redfish. AJ., our son, was two and a half years old. JB and I were sitting on a log watching AJ play on the beach as we talked. AJ was drawing in the sand with a stick. He said he was drawing an airplane. He wanted us to get on the plane. JB and I got off the log and got inside the outline of his airplane. We laughed as we made engine noise and bounced in the turbulence as AJ piloted that ‘plane’ around the lake.”

While JB was an angel to many, he never pretended to be pristine. Mike Vallander recalls his freshman year of high school. “Being that I’m a class clown, we clashed often. He would even throw textbooks across the room at students like me to get their attention…. By the end of the year I wised up and we actually became friends, so much so I ended up taking Composition with him my junior year and Advanced Composition with him my senior year.”

Now comes the no-saint part: “One of the things we often talked about during our lunchtime hang outs was his (and our) disdain for certain tenured teachers skating by… Mr. B would joke that they would just weigh a paper to decide the grade.”

So, in his senior year, Vallander wrote a paper for one of those teachers and “randomly placed curse words throughout the paper to see if it even got read. I told Mr. B I was doing this…Being that he was a fellow teacher he could not condone such a thing, but the smirk on his face said it all.” Vallander received an A on the paper.

And here is Andrew Salmonsen’s perfect story: “One day in 1983 while sitting in your class at Ramona High, some savant rode by the door on this bike and yelled out ‘Mr. Bowman is a dick!’ He quickly pedaled away leaving the room in deafening silence. You sat perched at your desk for a moment, then you stepped down, walked over to the chalk board, picked up a piece of chalk, and proceeded to write ‘Mr. Bowman is a dick.’ No one in the class breathed.” Next,John walked to the blackboard and “underlined subject, verb and adjective and declared it a ‘perfect simple sentence.’ You then erased it, went back to your desk, and continued the lesson. But the lesson was already over. I remember being absolutely shocked and awed by the way you handled that situation. It taught me more than anything I ever learned in class.”

Even now, the tributes flow in. Hector Ibarra, describing John’s gruff mind-side manner, wrote, “Therapy? We didn’t need no stinkin therapy! RIP Viejo Juan!” Michael L. Blood wrote, “There is nothing I wouldn’t have done for this man.” And Woody Kirkman called John “the best teacher I never had.”

Each of John’s grown children—Bernadette, Molly, Eileen and Conway—tell their own stories with clarity and care. JB glowed in their presence. He loved his family in a way that only someone who lost both parents at an early age can love; someone who witnessed a tragedy that no four-year old should see.

After reading the hundreds of astounding and heartfelt posts about her father, Bernadette was moved to tell this story: When she was ready to enter the first grade, her father took her to Long’s Drug Store. There, he told her that she could choose any lunchbox she wanted. “No brainer. I remember actually trembling with giddiness when I spotted this lunchbox which had the image of my future husband, Davy Jones, on it,” she recalls.

“I fondly recall proclaiming to my Dad around that same time that I planned on marrying Davy Jones,” the diminutive member of the TV series rock band, The Monkees. “Pop’s reply? ‘Well, ya better hurry up because you’ll be taller than that shrimp in about a year. Classic John Bowman.” She adds, “Thanks, Pop, for always supporting my dreams…whether you approved of them, or not.”

And this earlier memory. When Bernadette was three, after she and her father had watched “our favorite film ‘The Wizard of Oz’” on television, she requested that the family refer to her “only as ‘Dorothy’” for at least two weeks. Her father’s favorite character in that film was the Cowardly Lion.

“As I grew older, I understood and appreciated Pop’s love of this character and the actor who played him,” she writes. “Bert Lahr used to have Pop in stitches with his ‘If I Were King of the Forest’ solo,” and JB would often impersonate “Lahr’s hammy scenery-chewing vibrato.” Remembering this, she shared a quote from the Wizard to the Tin Man as the Tin Man is presented with his heart. Here is the line: “And remember, my friend. A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

And the extended members of John’s family?

“He was one of the most amazing men I have ever met,” writes Conway’s wife, Michelle Woo Bowman, whosays what all of them must feel. “Reading all of the posts on Facebook it is obvious that he was a father-figure and definitely a role model and great friend to countless others too. I will miss his smile, his chatter, his ability to recite poems off the top of his head, his love of black-and-white movies and show tunes, his huge presence in any room and most of all I’ll miss seeing my kids curled up in his lap while he reads to them.”

For years, I knew John was writing a memoir. In process, he shared only a few paragraphs with me. I decided he needed a proper writing tool, so I loaned him an old Mac. He hated the Mac with a passion (which he would deny, because he was not only a serious man, but a gentleman) and he finally gave it back. John’s family set him up with a computer more to his liking, and his pace picked up.

More years went by. Later, reading his manuscript, I sent him this e-mail: “I was up until 1:30 am reading your book. About a third of the way through. Reminds me of Dickens.” It was that good.

To write “Don’t Play on the Trestle,” he told stories of people who were pivotal in his life, characters as vivid as Oliver Twist. One of the stories is about his long-ago professor John Bremner – who recognized John’s writing potential and set an example as a great, if grumpy, teacher. Over the years, John and I talked often about Bremner, an ex-priest whom we shared as a teacher two decades apart, in two different states of the Union.

Angels and tricksters rise from the pages of John’s book. In his earliest years, in San Ysidro on the U.S.-Mexican border, John thought of himself as “Buck Bowman, Interplanetary Buckaroo.” Buck rounded up a colorful set of mentors. For example, “Mr. Cahill…an English gentleman of about seventy plus years” who had suffered wounds in the Transvaal and received the Victoria Cross for heroism. Mr. Cahill would regale John and his pals with tales of the second Boer War. While listening to the stories, the boys would admire the framed pictures of queen Victoria, King Edward II above the fireplace mantel. Mr. Cahill would signal the end of his story telling sessions by presenting them with a big pan of homemade gingerbread. As John recalled, Mr. Cahill “seemed always without the companionship of adults,” except for John’s grandfather.

After childhood tragedy carved up John’s life, his grandfather and grandmother raised him. But always he yearned for the parents he had lost, or someone to fill their place.

He found surrogate fathers in men like Crazy Ralph, a cowboy who lived in a house trailer. John was one of the few residents of San Ysidro to have seen the trailer’s interior. In his memoir, John writes, “Ralph’s person emitted an odd odor, a mixture of Duke’s Mixture tobacco, snuff, sweat, and horse and cow manure.” Or he recalled treasured teachers, including Mrs. Corbett, whom her remembered mainly for index finger of her right hand: “With that digit, which seemed two feet in length, she could fairly knock you out of your desk; it was a real stinger and a force to be avoided at all costs.” Such characters spill out of John’s book, each more vivid than the next. But the most vivid character is John.

“This man/ham was so at home in front of a microphone! Any microphone,” writes Bernadette. He did so many things, some of them central to his life, others avocational, including his long run as stadium public announcer of the Pacific Coast League’s San Diego Padres from 1961 to 1971. More central, he was a proud Lay Reader at Saint Martin of Tours parish in La Mesa. When he “recited the epistles, his booming, authoritative, dramatic voice sent chills through the congregation.” Once, “as a (really) wide-eyed, not-yet-theatrically-trained first grader,” she asked him: “Daddy, why does your voice sound so different than the one you use at home?” Using either voice, JB’s spirit was too large to have left the stadium, let alone the world.

Not long after I met him, John and I went fishing at Lake Morena, in the high desert of San Diego’s rugged East County. On that day, he taught me that fishing, fatherhood and teaching are related. It was a cold day. We wore light waders. The water and the flat clouds above it were dark, the wind icy.

Not much was biting. After a while, we retreated to my van. I poured coffee, and John told me how he was orphaned at four and a half years old. The details about how his mother and father died that day are best found in his book. But this image is especially moving and characteristic of John: “Taking my sister’s tiny hand in mine, I announced to the gawking neighbors that my sister and I would have to stay with them because my parents were not going to be home that evening. And that was that.” Except it wasn’t.

In his book, he writes about returning to that childhood home as an adult: “Now, at the age of eighty-three through the tear-filled eyes that had witnessed the tragedy of seventy-eight years past, the aging bungalow conjured one overpowering thought – Sweet Jesus, I sorely miss my tender loving mother.”

And now, as we sat in my van watching the lake, he said, “Our maternal grandparents took in my sister and me. My grandmother was Spanish, born in the old country and she couldn’t speak English worth a damn. Probably loved us too much and pampered us. I used to pull the wool over her eyes just by saying, `I’m going to be a priest.’ And she’d melt like butter because she felt that was going to be her ticket to heaven.” He added, “My grandfather was a very stern disciplinarian. Unfortunately, he died when I was 10, so I was left without a male role model.”

As we sat there watching the dark lake grow darker, I told him I had always been struck by the fact that men with the most traumatic experiences with their own fathers, often become the best of parents. John warmed his hands with his coffee cup. Then he offered a fisherman’s view of fathering: “Raising my kids was not a conscious thing. I think a lot of it was like fishing with nymphs.” Nymphs are flies that imitate the larval stage of insects that live on lake or stream bottoms. “You let the nymph drift under the water. You watch the line. You don’t usually see the strike but you do anticipate it. It’s very subtle. Of course, you must have a tackle box full of all kinds of lures and equipment, but the most important thing is time.

“When my wife and I were raising our children, I had to really make myself be a father, not as an obligation, but because I was privileged to have them. I always felt like my kids were sent for a purpose. And I always looked at them as being my conscience.” Like fish, he added, children are unpredictable, individualistic. “I have four kids and none of them is the same.” Each needs a different approach—or presentation, a term that fly-fishermen use the describe how the fly lands on the water. “My wife will tell you I paddled the kids, and I did, but they never went to sleep without my going in and giving them a big hug and kiss and saying good night.”

When Conway had kids of his own, he told his father that he would raise them just like John raised him.

“That pleased me no end,” John said. “And I’ll tell you, when we’re out at a fishing cabin, Conway still kisses me at night before he goes to bed. In fact, just the other day in Stroud’s, I was standing behind the counter and there were about four people there, and Conway said, `Well, Pop, I gotta go,’ and he came over and he gave me a kiss on the top of the head.” John paused. The sleet and the rain were lifting from the water. “Somebody said, `You must be awfully proud of those kids.’ And I said: `The main thing is they’re proud of themselves. That’s more important than me being proud of them.’”

That’s the John Bowman who is still with us. Did I mention that JB is too large a personality to have left the world? He has not. His children and grandchildren, his students and his friends, will tell you that. He will, too. And did.

At 6:15 am on June 27, on the day after he passed on, the following message mysteriously appeared on his Facebook page, written in his unmistakable voice:

“I have left this Earth. I am happy, fulfilled and don’t regret a minute of my life! I have 4 beautiful children, 2 amazing grandsons, nieces, nephews, godsons, cousins and friends that enriched my life while I was here. Heaven has an endless supply of fishing and hunting days. I’ll be puffing on my pipe reading books everyday. There are lots of friends here so don’t worry about me. Each one of you have touched my life and I will never forget any of you. Till we meet again. JB.”

Next post: Five Questions About Nature-Deficit Disorder

Prev post: Nature is Where You Find It — Even in a Strip Development

Comments

Add a new comment here

Name:

Email: (not shown)

Location:

URL:

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Submit the word you see below: