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"A Life Well Lived"--William Brandon Bowman (1939-2019)

(Photo courtesy William Brandon Bowman)

“I absolutely love teaching. Kids are wonderful, whenever and wherever. And I think I was just born always with an interest in the arts.  I mean, they were just things that meant something to me.”

--Bucky Bowman in March 2004                                       

“A life well lived, to the benefit and pleasure of all who knew him.”

That description comes from the obituary of William Brandon Bowman, “Bucky” as he was known by so many of us. Bucky died on November 9, 2019 at the age of 80, and his funeral service will be held Saturday November 23 at Christ Episcopal Church, 601 E. Walnut in Springfield.

Born and raised in Springfield, Bowman was introduced to music and the arts by his grandmother. And while he didn’t exactly plan on it, he spent nearly his entire adult life—from the time he was 20 years old—in education, primarily as an English, French and humanities instructor.

Bucky talked often—and generously—about the mentors who influenced his life. His grandmother was one. Another was Dr. Richard J. Payne, who taught French here at Missouri State University (the ONLY French professor at Southwest Missouri State College at the time in the late 1950s!). As Bucky told me with a laugh in a 2004 interview, “It’s kind of hard to go on to graduate schools and say, ‘I had 30 hours of French at the undergraduate level—and only one professor! It caused a few eyebrows to shoot up, don’t ya know!”  

As it happened, the small school district of Oak Grove, Missouri near Kansas City was suddenly in need of a high school English and French teacher, Bucky told me. “I signed my first contract—a magnificent sum of $3700, don’t ya know! And I had friends who said”—and he lowered his voice to an almost conspiratorial whisper—“Oh, Bucky, what a wonderful job!” And he chuckled in that unique way of his.

Bucky was 20 years old, had never taken education courses, didn’t even possess an official teaching certificate—he had to get an emergency certificate to take this job. But he spent two years in Oak Grove, MO, as THE English teacher… THE French teacher… and THE drama teacher.  “But it was wonderful fun,” he added. “And I learned more about myself, and human psychology, in those first two years than I ever expected to learn.  I’m so thankful I learned ‘em when I was 20 and 21! So I decided to come back to SMS and take 30 hours of education.”

He then went on to teach for three years in McCook, Nebraska—this time for $5000. While there, he began a Masters program in French and English at the University of Nebraska in 1964 (he completed it in 1971). The next year, a homesick Bucky Bowman was invited to return to Springfield to be a second English teacher at then-new Glendale High School… where he remained for nearly 29 years, teaching English, French and humanities courses until 1993.

In addition to his teaching career and his interest in the arts, Bucky Bowman loved to travel. In 1971 he was convinced by the mother of a Glendale student to organize annual “Foreign Study League”-style trips to Europe in the summer. “Well, finally I got very, very excited,” he said in 2004. “Of course, as a young French teacher, I needed to get back to France as often as I could. So I always made it a prerogative that we went to London and Paris, and then we would vary the itinerary throughout Europe summer after summer. So I began student travels in 1971.  And I continued these private travels through 1988. 

“Always being just hungry for the latest things, or repeat visits to art, I begin in about 1971 as well, leaving the week after Christmas, chartering a bus, inviting whoever wanted to go along—be it students or adults, and I had a combination of both—to go to New York for a week. And we would hit all the museums, all the plays we wanted to, all the musicals we wanted to, all the opera, art galleries. It was wonderful!” But the Christmas New York trips only lasted until 1978—New York City had become both too expensive, and too dangerous.  [I am proud to say I went on that last, 1978, Bucky New York trip as one of the “adult” travelers… I couldn’t afford to go in high school!]

Bucky Bowman was also able to indulge his artistic interests right here at home.  From 1970 to 1976 he and a friend, Stephen Davis, operated Stephen’s Gallery, Inc., which was “so far as I’m aware,” said Bucky, “Springfield’s first commercial art gallery. And it was wonderful.” By “commercial,” he meant a gallery where artwork was available not only for viewing, but for purchase. “And the whole point of it was to really have the finest possible art available. And so Stephen and I would make buying trips to New York City and various places.”  However, for all the hard work—and money—they invested, they simply could not afford to continue Stephen’s Gallery. The population base of Springfield wouldn’t support such a venture at the time. But Bucky felt sure they had paved the way for the explosion of commercial galleries in downtown Springfield over the past two decades or so (although Stephen’s Gallery itself was located on the Brentwood Center in southeast Springfield).

From 1983 to 1993 Bowman served in an administrative post with the Springfield R-12 school district, a post that was created for him: he was the district’s first “Curriculum Supervisor” for foreign language and the humanities. And he gave generously of his time and talents on the board of directors of both Springfield Little Theatre and Springfield Ballet… and he performed in several productions by both companies. “If you can imagine it, Randy, you’re looking at the first King Rat in Springfield Ballet’s production of ‘The Nutcracker!’” he told me.

From there he moved on to the board of Springfield Sister Cities Association, and went back to school himself, completing a second Masters degree in Education in the Humanities from Drury University.

It was in 1993 that Bucky had a truly unique teaching opportunity come his way. At age 53, he officially retired from Springfield Public Schools, and then applied for—and received—a job teaching English in Istanbul, Turkey… although he would say, rather sheepishly, “somehow in my naiveté I never understood that indeed in Turkey, I was an instructor of FOREIGN language!” (English as a second language, in other words.) This was at one of the most exclusive prep schools in Turkey.

After spending what he described as “five magnificent years” in Turkey, Bucky returned to Springfield briefly, ostensibly to help his four younger siblings care for their ailing parents. But the parents began thriving soon thereafter, so Bucky was off again to teach, this time a two-year stint at Pinewood Prep Academy near Charleston, South Carolina. “I wanted to continue to work,” he explained. “I just am one of those ‘Type-A’ personalities that hope to fall over doing something I love. I can’t bear the idea of ‘retirement.’ It sends cold chills down my spine!” 

Teaching was simply in Bucky Bowman’s blood, it seemed. “I love teaching! It was nothing I ever planned on, except I had wonderful role models. When I had the chance myself to be in front of students, it seemed a very natural thing. There is nothing like teaching to give you immediate feedback—you know whether you’ve bombed or not, whether it’s workin’ or not!”

In 2002 Bucky Bowman returned to Springfield, this time for a new challenge. The Community Foundation of the Ozarks had received a private grant to create a new office called “An Arts Patronage Initiative,” and Bucky was offered the job of creating and directing this new program. The goal of the Initiative was to promote fundraising to help local arts organizations sustain and thrive. “My whole job,” Bucky explained in 2004, “(was) to get people excited by, and helping underwrite, those organizations, and see that they continue… but not only continue, but to really grow and flourish.”

As the new century continued, Bucky worked diligently to help the Springfield Regional Arts Council transition into their new headquarters in the Creamery Arts Center; and he was a major force behind the Missouri Literary Festival in the mid-2000s.  [On a personal note, Bucky personally led the campaign to select me for the Arts Council’s Ozzie Award in 2006. Bucky was—finally!—honored with an Ozzie of his own in 2013.]  In 2017 he lent numerous artworks to the Springfield Art Museum for their “Wonder Rooms” exhibit, which showcased art from the personal collections of ten area art lovers.

Considering all the lives he touched during his 80 years among us, it was a “life well lived” indeed.

I want to close with a comment from one of those whose lives Bucky Bowman touched, and enriched, over the past 40-plus years: tenor, and music professor at University of Missouri-Columbia, Steven Tharp. Over the past few years Steve and Bucky took trips together to attend summer opera festivals around the country. Their last such trip was just this past July, to enjoy some opera productions at Des Moines Metro Opera. Here’s what Steve Tharp said during my 2004 profile of Bucky Bowman for the KSMU “Sense of Community” series:

“If he (Bucky) had his mentors, he repaid them by becoming a mentor himself to many people, to so many of his students. He’s a teacher in the best sense—the real meaning of the word “educate,” from the Latin “to draw out.” He draws out what’s best in people, and he finds what excites them.”

In lieu of flowers, Bucky requested that memorials be made to the following organizations:

--The William Brandon Bowman Scholarship for Foreign Language at the Springfield Public Schools Foundation (1131 Boonville, Springfield MO 65802);

--The Springfield Regional Arts Council (411 Sherman Parkway, Springfield MO 65802);

--Springfield Little Theatre (311 E. Walnut, Springfield MO 65806).