Lawyer, businessman, educator, benefactor and public servant are just a few of the titles that William H. Bowen held in his long life.
Like many successful Arkansans of his generation, he overcame a childhood of rural poverty and personal loss, leaving behind his own obstacles, and in the true definition of greatness, worked to take down obstacles for those around him and for the next generation. He rose to become a trusted advisor to governors, businessmen and a president in his influential career.
William Harvey Bowen was born in May 1923 in Altheimer, a small farming community of less than 500 residents, just northeast of Pine Bluff. His father was a farmer and ran a store and a cotton gin while his mother taught school. Bowen was one of six children, including a sister who died before he was born.
He and his family barely survived the Great Flood of 1927 that left one-seventh of the state underwater. Hundreds died and many more lost everything they had. His family lived for two weeks in the second floor of the local school to escape the floodwaters.
This was followed by the economic devastation of the Great Depression as farms fell to foreclosures and sent many to the edge of starvation in what was a productive agricultural state, all of which left a profound influence on Bowen.
After he graduated high school in 1941, Bowen enrolled at what was then Henderson State Teachers College. Unable to get any transportation, Bowen hitchhiked the nearly one hundred miles from Altheimer to Arkadelphia.
He enlisted in the United States Navy in December 1942 at the height of World War II. He lost two brothers in the war. He trained as a pilot and was discharged in 1946.
He finished his education at the University of Arkansas, and became an attorney by 1949.
After a brief stint as a lawyer in Pine Bluff, he went to New York University to study tax law. In 1952, he became a federal tax prosecutor. His skills caught the attention of a prominent Little Rock tax firm, which hired him in 1954. Within a few years, he was made a full partner.
Bowen immersed himself in public service. He served on numerous state and local commissions and also served as president of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and as president of the Pulaski County Bar Association.
He defended his clients, corporate and individual, with steadfast reliance on law and evidence.
Some of his cases became quite famous. At one point, he successfully defended Gov. Orval Faubus in a notorious federal tax case in the early 1960s. The fame he won led many to call for Bowen to run for governor himself in 1964. However, Faubus’ decision to run again that year made him decide against it.
Bowen’s reputation for integrity spread across the nation. In 1968, he was asked to teach an annual course in banking ethics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Honored by the appointment, he taught the course until 1990. In 1970, he was named general counsel to the Arkansas Bankers Association.
In 1971, Bowen was named president of Commercial National Bank. He aggressively pushed to make the moderate-sized company the largest bank in the state at the time by the early 1980s. He continued to work with the bank until 1990.
The following year, then-Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Bowen to serve as his chief of staff as he launched his presidential campaign. Clinton considered naming Bowen to head the Farm Credit Administration after his election, but Bowen declined.
Into his seventies, Bowen still had much to offer Arkansas. In 1995, he became dean of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School. He worked to further develop the law school which had just recently moved into a new building.
After his retirement from the position in 1997, he donated $2.5 million to create a scholarship fund for the school. As a result of his generosity, in April 2000, the school was renamed for Bowen. President Clinton traveled from Washington, DC, to speak at the school’s rededication, warmly praising the service of Bowen.
The Bowen School of Law is today ranked as one of the best law schools in the country by a number of observers.
Late into his life, Bowen was still sought for his expertise. Gov. Mike Beebe appointed Bowen to a vacancy on the State Supreme Court in 2009. The nomination seemed natural to such a respected attorney. Though honored by the appointment, Bowen’s health had started to decline now at age 86. He believed he did not have the energy to devote to the court and stepped aside.
Bowen continued to enjoy his time with friends and family until his death in Little Rock in November 2014 at age 91.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.