In more ways than one, this historian makes history
Jan. 22, 2012 has been declared John Bowker Day.
By MELODY JAMESON
SUN CITY CENTER — If you have an interest in history here, you’ve certainly come across John Bowker.
If you have been involved with amateur radio in the last 20 years, you’ve no doubt talked radio speak with him.
If you’re among the 5,000 or so subscribers to the Bowker eNEWS, you’ve shared your computer screen with his words regularly.
If you’re a New Englander or a SCC Emergency Squad volunteer or into genealogy or careful to evaluate candidates for local offices, you’ve rubbed shoulders with him at club meetings or on squad duty or at the SouthShore Regional Library or in forums at Community Hall.
Vermont native John D. Bowker is a SCC volunteer par excellence, something of a man for all seasons, quite literally a man about town. His is the voice of a one-time broadcaster, positive, definite, rarely at a loss for words. By his own admission, he’s a confident, productive, happy man in his maturity.
Others think so, too. Sunday, January 22, 2012, has been declared “John Bowker Day” by the Community Association directors. For his part, he wants to introduce his new history of the community that afternoon at Community Hall.
But John Bowker once was so painfully shy he entered therapy. In high school, he met Linda, the love of his life, admired her from a distance and eventually worked up courage to ask her if she could, possibly, see her way clear to allow him to, well, escort her, if she were willing, to a dance, maybe. Then, “I had to get my mother to call her and tell her I was sick and could not keep the date,” he now recalls. He was not physically ill, but beset by an attack of bashfulness driven by insecurity.
Later, after college at Middlebury in their hometown, after dating for several years, he determined he was going to pop the question. And, he did, but with no small amount of trepidation. Incredulously, without hesitation, she said yes. Looking back today, he remembers still his feelings of surprise and elation over her warm acceptance of his proposal. It remains one of his proudest moments, he allows. They’ve been married 56 years now and produced three constructive, productive offspring who, in turn, have given them six grand children.
Later yet, in the same vein, Bowker again was taken by surprise. Sitting in a large audience, listening idly to Jim Douglas, a future Vermont governor, Bowker heard his name spoken from the podium. Douglas, a younger Middlebury College alum, described Bowker as his “idol,” telling the assembly that Bowker’s battle to overcome the shyness that could impair most communication had inspired and encouraged the politician in his war on the affliction.
Both men overcame their insecurities. For Bowker, the therapy unquestionably was successful. And, he says, Douglas’ acknowledgment that day in Vermont capped what continues to rank high among his cherished personal achievements.
The Bowker achievements began to pile up when he was a teen-ager. Unsure, perhaps, in human relationships, young John could be masterful with technology. Still in high school, he designed, created and operated a small but quite functional radio station in Middlebury. He would go on to earn a BS in Engineering Physics from Middlebury College, graduating with the class of 1952.
In August, 1953, he was doing graduate work in New York City when offered the opportunity to join an elite group of 34 young men being assembled by David Sarnoff, then president of Radio Corporation of America (RCA), parent company of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Bowker says he recognized the choice: a master’s degree in the coming year or the RCA brass ring immediately at hand. He grabbed the ring.
It would prove a good choice. Bowker would be involved from the ground floor in development of color television. However, it was not all smooth sailing in the world of TV technology during those middle decades of the 20th century. But Bowker would tack safely through the troubled waters. At one point, he recalls, corporate seas were so stormy, he expected RCA to let him go. Instead, he was tapped to head personnel management. Ultimately, he would take on licensing responsibilities for NBC, managing that aspect across all broadcast components of the network – radio, television, ship-to-shore, etc. And, at one point during an engineers’ strike, he would totally run an NBC radio station in the west, from announcing to cleaning the floors.
Come 1987, he “retired” for the first time. With Linda not yet ready to wrap up her career as a computer systems analyst, Bowker established and operated his own company for four years. Eventually, though, they put those worlds – and their longtime home base at Princeton Junction, West Windsor Township, New Jersey - in the rearview mirror, hitting the open road in a motorhome.
They had two separate objectives. He wanted to record and collect the hourly-announced identifying call letters of AM radio stations around the country; she wanted to visit every fabric store in the nation. He would amass 14,000 recordings; she would acquire a stash of textiles and a button collection that surpassed that in a national museum. “What I saved on store-bought dresses, I’ve spent on closets,” he jokes in mock complaint.
They also began, during these years, a practice of bringing radio station recordings to annual conventions of blind persons which they scheduled and conducted in different U.S. cities each Labor Day weekend.
And, in 1990, they wandered into Sun City Center to visit an old colleague. Parking the motorhome on Cherry Hills Drive, he spotted a small antenna farm and discovered the amateur radio clubroom where, he remembers, he was graciously welcomed. Linda happily had stumbled across the very productive sewing group. Now, he says, “we didn’t know it at the time, but both of us returned to the coach that day wondering how we were going to tell each other we wanted to stay here.”
They worked it out and before leaving town, they asked a local Realtor to look for a single story home on water facing south with no front windows. The result was an open, airy Limetree model at the west end of Ft. Duquesna Drive which met the exact specifications. They settled in during 1991, still living the snowbird lifestyle.
Soon, though, they were out in the community. Bowker first took in an Issues and Ideas forum conducted by the late Phil Lange, happening on a talk by Aaron Long, a South County rancher and land clearing specialist, who detailed SCC’s evolution from cattle pasture to cosmopolitan retirement center.
“It was interesting,” Bowker remembers, “and I asked Phil Lange if any of it was written down anywhere; available for reading.” Lange, he says, handed him a box of clippings, notes, letters, photos, assorted references. And John Bowker was on his way to community historian. “I promised Phil before he died I would write that community history.”
In the meantime, there was service with the SCC Men’s Club and its Lifeline help program and work as a hospital volunteer and duty at the SCC Security Patrol and the first community answers outlets both in print as well as by telephone and establishment of the SCC Information and History Center as part of the Central Campus and creation of the annual Hi Neighbor program and the 40th anniversary efforts and the Welcome Newcomer series and the annual Fun Fest and…the list goes on.
It’s one of the reasons Ed Barnes, Community Association president, says of Bowker “he always puts Sun City Center first; he’s our biggest supporter.” John Bowker Day on January 22 is to demonstrate “our gratitude for all that he’s done; his day of recognition,” Barnes notes. It’s only the fifth time in SCC’s 50-year history that such an honor has been accorded.
For Bowker, it’s a day to mark the promise kept, the first fulfilling of the pledge to a treasured late-life friend in the form of Volume I, authored by Bowker, dedicated to Lange, published by M&M Printing. Now comfortably ensconced with Linda in an apartment at The Courtyards, he’s been thinking about Volume II. History, he suggests, helps fit the pieces of life’s puzzles together.
Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson