Public service, public servant
BREMEN — Otis R. “Doc” Bowen, who rose from a rural Fulton County upbringing to the apex of state leadership and eventually into the national spotlight, died Saturday.
He was 95.
“I think to the people of Marshall County, he was above politics,” David Holmes, county GOP chair, said Sunday. “If you were a Democrat or a Republican, I don’t think it made much difference. You were a fan of ‘Doc’ Bowen.”
Bowen died at about 6:15 p.m. Saturday at Catherine Kasper Life Center in Donaldson, Ind.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence publicly announced Bowen’s death in a news release issued Sunday afternoon and ordered flags lowered through Saturday.
“Governor Otis R. Bowen’s contributions to the life of this state and nation are incalculable,” Pence said in the release, “and I mark his passing with a sense of personal loss. His story is as inspiring as it is uniquely Hoosier.”
Bowen served as governor from 1973 to 1981. In 1972, Hoosier voters approved a state constitutional amendment allowing governors to serve consecutive terms.
Bowen became the first to serve back-to-back terms when voters re-elected him in 1976.
“He had a following of people – not political – that were friends of his,” said Holmes, who first met Bowen in the early 1970s. “I think that was the biggest compliment to him. It wasn’t just about politics. He was a doctor. They didn’t look on him as a career politician.”
Bowen was born Feb. 26, 1918, near Leiters Ford in Fulton County. A graduate of Francesville High School, he earned his medical degree from Indiana University in 1942.
Bowen joined the U.S. Army medical corp and was among the first soldiers to invade Okinawa during World War II.
He was discharged from the Army in 1946 and started his medical practice in Bremen. As a country doctor, Bowen became a well-known figure in Marshall County. His family estimates that he delivered over 3,000 babies while practicing medicine locally.
“I think he delivered the majority of the babies in Bremen that (are now) over 40,” Holmes said.
His first political office was Marshall County Coroner. He was elected to the Indiana House in 1956, but lost his re-election bid two years later.
Voters sent him back to Indianapolis in 1960 and he remained a fixture there for seven terms. He was named minority leader in 1965 and speaker in 1967.
Bowen sought the GOP nomination for governor in 1968, but lost. Four years later, however, he was elected Indiana’s 44th governor.
As word of Bowen’s death spread Sunday, a steady stream of condolences and remembrances flowed from current and former Hoosier officeholders.
“Doc Bowen was the best example of a public leader in our state and nation because of his demeanor, intellect, wisdom and range of abilities that brought achievement and success to everything he did,” former Indianapolis mayor and U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar said in a statement. “Whether it was a call from a patient, a constituent, or his country, Doc could not refuse to serve.
“It was my privilege to be a partner with him for decades as we made progress of good governance in achieving Unigov for Indianapolis, selecting federal judicial leaders and advancing exciting reforms during the Reagan Administration.”
“Indiana lost a humble giant whose soft spoken, yet firm convictions influenced many Hoosiers, including me,” U.S. Sen. Dan Coats said in a statement.
“The good doctor and good governor will long be remembered as an example of political leadership and human decency.”
Rep. Tim Harman, R-Bremen, who got to know Bowen through the church they attended, said he feels pride knowing he represents what was once most of Bowen’s district in the Indiana House.
“He gave me very little campaign advice, but rather important lessons in life such as never being late for meeting, always study both sides of an issue, do what is in the best interest of your district and above all, do what is right,” Harman said. “It’s truly an honor to serve in his old seat and it is a blessing to have been able to get to know him for that brief moment. He truly was a remarkable man of class.”
“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Governor Otis Bowen,” U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Jimtown, said in a statement. “During his incredible career, he touched the lives of Hoosiers across the state and Americans nationwide, demonstrating an unwavering commitment to public service.
“Governor Bowen was a trusted advisor to me in the State House, always delivering words of wisdom and kind guidance,” Walorski continued. “He will long be remembered for his humble nature and admirable passion to help others – qualities we should all strive to emulate.”
And Bowen’s legacy is still being felt across Indiana, according to Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Downs said Bowen helped local municipalities get more control of how they collect taxes to fund spending.
“His impact on the financing of local government operations is something we still look back on today,” Downs said Sunday.
Bowen was key in changing the state’s tax collection system, lowering property taxes, but offsetting that with an increase in the state’s sales taxes.
And much like the Bowen Centers for mental health that bear his name, so too does the non-partisan Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University in Muncie.
Professor Sally Jo Vasicko, the Bowen Center for Public Affairs’ co-director, echoed Downs, saying the former governor casts a long political shadow across the state.
Vasicko said Bowen was instrumental in modernizing state financing. He also played a large role in Indiana’s caps on physician financial liability.
While he was seemingly admired by politicians of all parties, Bowen was a Republican, Vasicko said.
“He was very policy driven,” she said, “as well as being a humanitarian.
“He wasn’t just this sweet little man. He knew how to get things done.”
After Bowen left the governor’s office in 1981, he began teaching family medicine at IU. He stayed in Bloomington until President Reagan appointed him Secretary of Health and Human Services in 1985.
Bowen served as HHS secretary until Reagan left office in 1989. The former governor and doctor then returned to Bremen in retirement.
According to many who knew him, it will be the mark he left on Bremen and Marshall County that might be the longest remembered.
“I think we lost a true and valued Hoosier,” said John Zentz, former Marshall County Republican Party chairman. “Being a doctor, he had the trust of the people to start with. He was always fair, even with the other side of the aisle ... He was always fair.”