Early on Tuesday of this week a man who devoted his life to Christian education passed away in Memphis, Tennessee; he was 82 years old. His name was Harold Bowie.
Many of my former students (as well as former colleagues) at Memphis Harding Academy have been writing tributes to him on Facebook and other social media sites this week. To say that he had a profound impact on thousands upon thousands of people would be quite accurate (if not an understatement).
His lengthy obituary outlines a life of true greatness and is a clear statement of his far-reaching influence. I cannot improve on it here. But what I feel compelled to do is tell two stories about this fine man, stories that you will never hear from anyone else. These episodes are particular to me. And they stand out in my private memories of this man. I thanked him (in writing) for at least one of these two instances several years ago on his birthday.
These stories demonstrate two rare but admirable qualities: fierce courage as well as exemplary humility. I will forever be inspired by them, and I share them with you now.
I was cornered one morning in the early 1980s before the start of the school day by an older fellow teacher at the high school where Dr. Bowie served as superintendent. She was the mother of one of the students who had tried out for the junior high basketball team of which I was assistant coach. She was livid (to put it mildly). Her son had been “cut” from the team, and she was trying to persuade me in vitriolic fashion to reconsider the decision.
I have never been good dealing with angry persons, and was especially taken aback by this surprising and forceful display of vehemence directed at me; she literally backed me into a corner of the front office and proceeded to read me the proverbial “riot act.”
Just as I was about to close my eyes in fear and prepare for a painful death . . . Dr. Bowie appeared as if out of nowhere. He wedged his way in between the two of us and began to unleash one of the most severe and authoritative assaults on a human being I have ever witnessed. In fact, it was the most severe. No question about it.
I watched and listened as he not only protected me (one of his young teachers), but further, as he launched into a quiet but certain undressing of the other teacher – providing a clear, unmistakable mandate regarding what would be appropriate interaction between us and what, by contrast, would not be tolerated.
By the time he finished speaking to her I was done fearing for myself, and had long since identified with the pain and embarrassment (if not abject fear) she must have been feeling; I felt so sorry for her.
One thing was unmistakable – Dr. Harold Bowie was an advocate par excellence; he had no equal. He had, no doubt, read the ancient Hebrew story of Moses, specifically the occasion when he intervened on behalf of a fellow countryman who was being mistreated (Exodus 2:11-15). There is no greater fierceness in the world than the fierceness unleashed by a mother bear protecting one of her cubs. I will remember it until the day I die.
On another occasion, several years later, Dr. Bowie called me into his office for a “chat.” I suspected I knew the reason for the encounter, and I did not expect the visit to be pleasant. In my teaching of juniors and seniors that year I had presented a particular topic in a way that did not jibe with the traditional approach taken by the school, the school board, and the administration. Some parents had complained to him in his role as superintendent.
I was out on a limb. And I knew the limb was about to be severed.
Dr. Bowie and I sat down, in private, in his small office. He proceeded to talk with me about the issue at hand in his gentle yet authoritative manner, providing the traditional point of view on the subject along with the typical proof texts to buttress his position. These, of course, were points I knew like the back of my hand.
When he was done, he locked eyes with me and waited for a response. I hesitated. For a long while, I suppose. I did not want to lose my job. But I also did not want to be intellectually dishonest. My silence did not go unnoticed. I wanted to try to hide the personal dilemma that was, no doubt, all over my face. And I knew his next words would be strong and definitive. Remember, I had seen him in action before when someone was in the wrong.
What transpired next ought to be in the history books (so to speak). For me, it was just that moving, that recordable, that unforgettable.
Dr. Bowie said, “Ivan. The fact that you are not impressed with what I’ve just said . . .” [my heart was pounding, awaiting my certain demise] “makes me want to go back and examine it again for myself.”
What? [I thought]
Had he not fired me? Had he not chastised me for my untenable position? Had he not . . . . No. He had not.
What he had done will stick with me forever. Deep in my heart. He had listened to my silence and somehow embraced the spirit with which I was teaching my students; he had exemplified for me the humble attitude of the servant-leader who, even though he possessed the power and shouldered the pressure of great financial constituents of the school, was prompted by my lack of acquiescence to reexamine his own point of view.
I left our meeting that day knowing that, once again, Dr. Harold Bowie had decided that to step in between me and my opposition was preferable to seeing me leave teaching. Even if it meant that he would have to face them now himself. The respect he showed that day was not lost on me. But I know it was more a feature of his character than it was of mine.
My venerable friend Landon Saunders once said, “Many of us want to be seen as Great, without really being Great.” How true.
Harold Bowie was truly a great man.
One day, while interacting with some of the kindergarten students that his late wife Pat taught in Memphis, Dr. Bowie encountered a young child enamored with the superintendent’s position, status, and power. He referred to Dr. Bowie, respectively, as “the biggest Cheeto in the bag.”
And I guess he was.
I know that for me . . . he was both savior and advocate, humble learner and insightful leader.
Dr. Bowie. I will miss you. But I will never be the same. Because of you.