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What's Up Magazine

What’s Up? Visionaries: Bernie Fowler

Jan 19, 2016 03:43PM ● By Cate Reynolds
“Never give up. Never, never, never give up.”

This famous quote of Winston Churchill’s is a favorite of Bernie Fowler’s and could be the mantra of his career.

A WWII veteran and former Maryland state senator famous for his work to improve the Chesapeake Bay, Fowler was born in 1924 in Baltimore. He was the only one of six children born in the city. His sister and four brothers were all born in Broomes Island, a small waterfront community in southern Calvert County where he grew up. His love for this area is a driving force for his impressive career and the many things he has done to make Maryland a better place.

As a young teenager, Fowler worked for a neighbor, Mr. Keppler. He helped him and his wife run their row boat rental business, the first of its kind in the area. A former Marine, Mr. Keppler talked Fowler into heading to Washington, D.C. to work at the Navy Yard before heading to serve in WWII in the Pacific.

Upon returning from war, Fowler bought a little piece of property on the Patuxent and opened Bernie’s Boats, complete with boats and a snack bar.

That’s where he met his wife, Betty, or “honey” to him. Her parents were two of his best customers.

“It was a Sunday afternoon,” reminisces Fowler, smiling. “I remember her getting out of the car. I’m telling you right now, Elizabeth Taylor didn’t hold a candle to her.”

To Fowler, she is a true partner. Every big decision he’s made over the past 66 years has involved her input. Shortly after meeting Betty, one such decision came into play and his career path took an unexpected turn.

In the 1960s, Fowler found himself serving on the Board of Education while still fishing on his beloved Patuxent. He noticed that the water was becoming less clear. He used to be able to see from his shoulder to his feet, but now, the six-foot tall man couldn’t see his toes while wading in the river. As Fowler tells it, “My river was being polluted, so I decided to do something about it.”

In 1970, he spent $157 on his campaign to run for County Commissioner and was easily elected. He served for the next 12 years, working as the board’s president for much of that time, and leading the county that he loved with passion and integrity. During his tenure, he instituted prayer before every meeting and started recording every session to set the stage “to do what was right.”

“I believe when you are elected by the people, it should be like you are in a fish bowl,” he says emphatically. “If it isn’t good enough to say in public, then don’t say it and certainly, don’t do it.”

Together with the other two county commissioners, Fowler made it a priority to put a strategy together for the peninsula, the 1974 Comprehensive Plan, a guide for the county’s growth and capital improvements to balance the “good life” with the need for money.

Fowler and his fellow commissioners carried the plan directly to the people and let them know they had decision-making power. Over 400 volunteers were recruited to spread the word and gain support. The plan was put in place amidst very miniscule opposition and eventually won a national award for revolutionary planning.

“It was the beacon for Calvert County and we followed it to the letter of the law,” Fowler says. “We made sure that we didn’t destroy the environment for revenue. Of all things I have been involved in during my career, this was one of the highlights.”

Another point of pride in Fowler’s career was his fight to save the Chesapeake Bay. He became a County Commissioner in part to gain clout in Annapolis so people would listen to his fears that the Bay was polluted.

“One of the most difficult tasks I took on was proving to the then Department of Water Resources and Governor Mandel that the Patuxent was polluted,” he recalls.

State leadership feared that he was going to chase tourists away. But Fowler stuck to his guns.

In 1977, he led three counties—Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s—to file a lawsuit against the state and federal government for not doing their part in following the Clean Water Act. They won and the tide started to turn.

And then along came a fellow by the name of Harry Hughes. In 1978, Hughes became the Governor of Maryland. Fowler recalls that he was not that well known, but he was smart. It wasn’t long before Fowler deemed him “The King.”

“If he told you that something was going to happen, you could take it to the bank.”

Early in his administration, Fowler invited Hughes to take a trip on the Patuxent. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Chesapeake Biological Lab provided two boats and dozens of scientists to tour the river. Fowler was now working closely with this organization, “as close as family,” as they researched Bay issues. The scientists explained to the Governor how the oysters were dying. Together, they told him what was wrong and what needed to be done.

At the end of the day, a clear one in December, the crew went to Solomons, Maryland, for dinner. Fowler provided the keynote speech. He noted that they had just celebrated Thanksgiving, and Christmas was around the corner. He urged Hughes to act as Santa Claus for Maryland and give them one present: leading the charge to clean up the Patuxent River.

Hughes got up to the microphone and responded: “Ho, ho, ho.”

In 1982, Fowler joined Hughes in Annapolis as a State Senator representing portions of Calvert, St. Mary’s, and Anne Arundel counties. Not surprisingly, the environment became one of his top legislative priorities. He continued his quest to save the Bay and started his Patuxent River Wade In and sneaker index, which celebrated its 27th anniversary this past June.

The famous “white sneaker” test checks water clarity by seeing how deep participants wade into the water and can still see their shoes. The event has led to more awareness of Bay restoration efforts.

Fowler remembers that he and Hughes thought that after 15 to 20 years they would have the river “shining.” And while he concedes they missed that mark, they succeeded by keeping the Bay from dying.

“Without the courage of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory scientists, along with their banks of data, proof, and evidence, the Bay would have been dead 20 years ago,” he says.

The feeling of respect is mutual. UMCES named a lab after him and presented him with the first ever Reginald V. Truitt Environmental Award for his efforts to protect the Bay watershed.

Fowler realizes that we still have a long way to go in Bay restoration, but in true Fowler fashion, he won’t stop as long as he can still stand and talk.

He sums up his conviction concisely: “I believe when we look back on our lives, it won’t matter if we had the biggest house or the fanciest car. It will only matter what we did to make the world a better place.”

With that nugget of wisdom in mind, one can only hope that as the amazing Bernie Fowler reflects on his life and career, he feels nothing but fulfilled.

Kristen Peterson