The Bowker Legend
By Fred Charles
Al Bowker, a renowned administrator in U.S. higher education, was a friend of mine. I began working for him as a driver in 2002, and later as a Teaching Assistant in Theater. Al was a mentor to me. He passed away January 20th, 2008. He was always reaching out to people. There are many great stories about him, but this is one of my favorites. From Beijing to New York City, due cultural and political reasons, people have used their power to prevent this story from being published. Until now. For the first time ever, it is with much pleasure to bring you one of the greatest stories in the history of US Presidential politics, or what Al liked to call, The Bowker Legend.
There was always much to talk about with Al. He liked to tell, among other things, firsthand accounts about the Rockefellers, his experiences in China, the White House, and his more exciting days as Chancellor of City University of New York, University of California at Berkeley, Dean of Stanford University and so on.
Al had met every U.S. President during his lifetime, beginning with Woodrow Wilson. The only President he didn't meet was Franklin Roosevelt, but he said, "It didn't matter because he'd met Eleanor." He loved to tell people about what he liked to call 'The Bowker Legend.' Al would half jokingly, half seriously explain, "If you want to be President, you have to shake my hand." Indeed, some time after FDR, Al began meeting Presidents before they became President. There are other documented anomalies in life. For example, when the University of Kentucky wins the NCAA Basketball Championship, the New York Yankees win the World Series.
In China during the 70s, Bowker met George Bush Sr. and Jr.; in the 90s, it was Bill Clinton. Each pre-Presidential encounter is a story of its own. Nearly four years ago, he asked me to do the reaching out by arranging a meeting with John Kerry, the former Democratic candidate for President. After explaining 'The Bowker Legend' to Democratic National Committee staff in San Francisco, they thought it was a joke. Bowker and Kerry never met.
Last summer, I tried again and mailed invitations from Beijing to both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee in Washington D.C., urging their candidates to meet Al. I wanted Al to receive the fuss he deserved before leaving this world. None of the candidates, it turns out, bothered to contact him. I met with Al at his home for the last time in December, 2007. He was cheerful as usual. Asked about the lack of responses from the Presidential candidates, Al didn't mind. "I want to die quietly," he confided.
"When I met all the Presidents, I also met their partners. I've already met Hillary," he said. This wasn't an endorsement per se; it just so happens that he'd already met her and nobody else responded to the invitations. Hillary was winning by a landslide while Al was still alive. After his death, her popularity declined. Whether or not Al's famous Presidential handshake can reach beyond the grave is yet to be seen. It seems now that his perfect streak has ended with him. And perhaps that is all well and good because, at times, the handshake could act like a curse beyond his control. Yet he was kindhearted and never refused anyone who wanted to meet him. In fact, politicians would quietly arrange meetings with Al, including Governors with White House Fever. Al was always reaching out to people.
Al's reach was international. In 1972, Al had become the first Western university leader to visit China after the Cultural Revolution. Al was there at the same time as the Nixon envoy, and established academic exchanges with Tsinghua University and Peking University. Al felt, "It was essential to establish relations with China during that time."
Zhou Enlai, Mayor of Beijing, gave him gifts of Traditional Chinese watercolors, and those paintings graced Al's dining room in Berkeley till the day he died. Al always looked more or less the same as when I first met him. He always wore a dark blue blazer and a plain white shirt, his unruly white hair, and his dark framed, oversized eyeglasses that seem only to be worn by New Yorkers.
Al loved New York, and boasted, "New York City has the best Theater and book events; it's the capital of all things cultural in the world."
He wanted to spend the rest of his life in NYC, but he was a devoted Grandfather and chose to be with his family; he became a frequent patron of theater and literary events in the San Francisco Bay Area. Every Christmas, Al sent out a holiday photo. His career and hobbies constantly put him in social circles with movers and shakers in SF, NYC, and Washington D.C.
Al's mind remained sharp until the end. He was 88. He gave me permission to tell this story… but requested that I do so only after he died. His passing was quiet. His life was legendary.