Frank Bowden’s funeral was over before I knew he was gone. I learned of his death when I saw his obituary in a stack of papers I’d set aside to read when I got the time, and although I knew him pretty well, there was a lot I didn’t know about Frank Bowden, because he really didn’t talk about himself much.
He would have turned 90 this year, which means he was one of the youngest of the Greatest Generation, having served in the U.S. Army in Germany and France. This would have placed him in some of the fiercest fighting of the war at age 18. When I knew him, some 50 years later, he was one of those “Stand me up at the gates of hell and I won’t back down” guys that Tom Petty sang about.
Another thing I didn’t know about him was that as a science teacher and a principal, he worked to integrate Southern Appalachian Regional Science Fair and was an active but behind-the-scenes participant in the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s, providing transportation and bail money for the Knoxville College students who were sitting-in at downtown lunch counters and picketing the Tennessee Theatre.
Bob Booker was among those KC students Frank assisted.
“I’m not sure he felt comfortable marching and carrying signs, but there were a number of people who would get students out of jail and provide transportation when they needed to get downtown. He was in the forefront of trying to move us forward and was always interested in progress. He tried to bring that to every school he was assigned to, whether as a teacher or a principal. He was a strong voice. No question about that.”
Years later, when Bowden was a county commissioner, Booker enjoyed his sparring with County Executive Dwight Kessel, who opposed Bowden’s efforts to force the county to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Mark Cawood, who served on commission with Bowden, remembers those battles, too.
“He told Kessel to take that sheet out of his closet and wear it,” Cawood said.
I can’t remember the precise issue, but I do remember the time Bowden – who could flat turn a phrase – elegantly accused his colleagues of being spineless by saying they had “exoskeletons,” and the time he told a pandering colleague to “Put that race card back in your pocketbook.”
But my favorite Bowden memory happened the day buses full of Christian Coalition members packed the hall and cheered while their preachers demanded that the commissioners sign onto a resolution denouncing “special rights” for gay people. Popularly known as the “Gay Bashing Resolution,” it had no force of law, but was being carried to local elected bodies all over the country, and would become a cudgel come the next election.
There were 19 commissioners in those days, and 15 of them voted – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – for the measure. Two passed. Another, Bee DeSelm, voted no. And one voted “Not only no, but hell no.”
That was Frank William Bowden. I’m glad I knew him.