A friend reports the death last night of William H. Bowen, a towering figure in Little Rock business and politics. He was 91.
After service in the Navy in World War II, the Altheimer native went to work as a tax attorney for the Justice Department. He spent 17 years in practice before becoming a banker, eventually the leader of banks — Commercial and First Commercial, eventually subsumed into Regions. He was chief of staff to Gov. Bill Clinton from 1991 to 1995, in the beginning to protect the campaigning Clinton from incursions on his administraton by an assertive Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. In 1995, he became dean of the UALR Law School, which is now named in his honor. In 2009, Gov. Mike Beebe appointed him at age 86 to fill out a term on the Arkansas Supreme Court, but he decided shortly after not to complete the assignment. He’s been in fading health in recent years, though it hasn’t been long since he was a regular sight at Franke’s cafeteria in the Regions building, lunching with old colleagues from the Friday law firm.
He wrote a memoir, “The Boy from Altheimer: From the Depression to the Boardroom,” Bill Clinton wrote the foreword to the book and spoke glowingly of Bowen’s contribution to his political career.
He was courtly, engaging and involved. He was also tough and the many obituary tributes to follow should include some of the stories of his encounters with other titans of Little Rock.
Ruebel Funeral Home will be handling arrangements.
UPDATE: Those interested in Arkansas history will want to read Ernie Dumas’ recounting of Bowen’s remarkable life.
William H. Bowen, a farm boy from Altheimer who built far-reaching careers in law, banking, government, business and education, died Wednesday, November 12. He was 91.
Bowen was a senior partner in Arkansas’s largest law firm, president of the state’s largest bank, chief executive officer of a health insurance company and dean of the state’s largest law school, which was later named the William H. Bowen School of Law. At the age of 87, he was appointed justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2009 by Gov. Beebe to complete the term of retiring Justice Annabelle Clinton Imber but resigned after a week because he said he was not physically up to the task. He was a friend and adviser to Bill Clinton and managed the governor’s office for a year while Clinton was away running for president and also a friend and adviser to Dale Bumpers and David Pryor when they were governors and United States senators.
He occasionally mused about a political career, backing away in the most serious contemplation in 1964, after a front-page article in the Arkansas Gazette listed him as the leading prospect to succeed Gov. Orval E. Faubus, who for a while was not expected to run again.
Bowen served on countless business, professional and civic boards and state and national governmental advisory boards. He was a Navy pilot in World War II, survived a series of training crashes, and he had an extended career in the Naval Reserve. President Clinton appointed him to the Employers Support Committee for Guard and Reserve visiting Bosnia and Germany while chairman of the committee. Also, he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Outstanding Service Medal.
In a 2006 memoir that recounted the grueling hardship of life in the Mississippi Delta, for families like his own but more so for blacks who were banished to the dark recesses of the social and economic order, Bowen
counted himself a lucky man.
“I have lived during a remarkable period in our nation’s history as the agricultural-driven society of my childhood gave way to the turmoil of the Depression and World War II, and the social upheaval of the aftermath,” Bowen wrote in The Boy from Altheimer. “Although I grew up in a section of the country that was among the poorest in the nation, I nevertheless benefited from the stability of my family and community life. Growing up in a time and place where individuals had little control over the capriciousness of nature and the land, I was lucky to guide my own destiny.”
William Harvey Bowen was born May 6, 1923, in Altheimer, a farm town of 450 in the often flooded lowlands east the Arkansas River and Plum Bayou in Jefferson County. His father, Robert J. “Bob” Bowen farmed, managed a cotton gin and ran a general store, among other occupations, and his mother, Ruth Falls Bowen, was a schoolteacher. He was one of six children. His sister, Lois Rhene, died of flu at the age of three during the raging pandemic at the end of World War I. Brother John, a National Guard artilleryman, drowned at sea in the battle for the Aleutian Islands in World War II. Two months later, another brother, Pat, died of a ruptured appendix.
Bill’s oldest brother, Bob, also a WWII veteran, settled in Altheimer as a cotton gin manager and mayor for over 20 years. His younger brother, Jim, enlisted in the Navy at 16 and served on a destroyer in the China Sea, and was a long-time SW Bell executive.
The memoir described the serial ordeals of the community and his family in the 1920s and 1930s, of living for weeks on the second floor of the local school during the great flood of 1927, when he was four; of the succeeding droughts that ruined farmers and drove them from the land and President Herbert Hoover’s declaration that it was not the government’s function to help them; and of the Great Depression that left neighboring tenant farmers, black and white, penniless and starving until the government finally delivered relief.
Bowen graduated from high school in 1941 and hitchhiked to Henderson State Teachers College at Arkadelphia for a year until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Bowen joined the Navy in December 1942 and trained to fly from carriers in the Pacific, but the war ended before he could put his training to use.
He left the Navy and enrolled at the University of Arkansas in 1946 and then in its law school. He married Connie Wanasek, a student and an employee of the registrar’s office. He graduated from law school in 1949, worked briefly for a Pine Bluff law firm, and then did graduate study in tax law at New York University.
In 1950, he became law clerk to Judge Bolon B. Turner of the U.S. Tax Court in Washington, D.C. and two years later joined the Trial Section of the U. S. Justice Department’s Tax Division as special assistant to the attorney general. He tried tax cases in federal district and appeals courts across the South, including Arkansas.
In 1954, he joined the Little Rock law firm of Mehaffy, Smith and Williams as a trial tax specialist, switching from defending the government to defending taxpayers. The firm had seven lawyers. It would soon become Mehaffy, Smith, Williams, Friday and Bowen. It is now Friday, Eldredge and Clark and has 85 lawyers.
His first big case was a suit against the state in which he represented W. R. “Witt” Stephens, the founder of Stephens, Inc., and president of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. He sought a $500,000 refund for Stephens, who claimed he did not owe the taxes on his purchase of the controlling stock in the gas company because he closed the deal in New Jersey, not Arkansas, to escape excise taxes levied by New York and Arkansas, where
the negotiations occurred. Bowen won the case at the Arkansas Supreme Court and billed Stephens $55,000, which he paid unhappily.
In 1962, he represented the city’s four large banks opposing an effort by insurance executive Jess Odom to charter a new bank in Little Rock. They revealed that Odom had been found guilty of civil fraud in the formation of his insurance company, and the comptroller of the currency denied the bank charter. The case brought Bowen more banking clients.
Bowen prepared Governor Faubus’s tax returns for 13 years and defended him successfully when the Internal Revenue Service tried to collect income taxes on the rental value of the Governor’s Mansion. He soon became the most renowned tax lawyer in the state, representing Stephens and banks in gift-tax disputes, and state Sen. Q. Byrum Hurst of Hot Springs, who was charged with federal tax evasion. Bowen called the notorious Prohibition-era gangster Owney Madden (then living in Hot Springs) to the stand in Hurst’s 1963 trial to testify about his loans to Hurst.
Hurst was acquitted, but was convicted of tax evasion 11 years later.
Bowen became general counsel for the Arkansas Bankers Association and in 1970 Richard C. Butler approached Bowen about succeeding him as president of Commercial National Bank, then the fourth largest bank in Little Rock. He became president in May 1971 and began an aggressive campaign to build the bank. He borrowed a casket from Griffin Leggett Funeral Home and put it on the table in the bank’s boardroom. He asked all the bank’s principal officers and board members to bury their attitudes of complacency—just being satisfied with being a friendly neighborhood bank—by dropping an artificial flower in the casket. The bank went after depositors and its assets, net income and shareholder equity leaped.
Bowen appointed a national advisory board to the bank, and each year it published a lengthy analysis of growth issues in the state with recommendations about how the state could move forward.
In 1983, after a protracted fight with competing banks, Commercial and First National Bank merged into the successor First Commercial National Bank, as Arkansas’s largest bank and its first multi-bank holding company. Days before the merger was to be implemented, Jackson T. Stephens, the president of Stephens, Inc., and the brother of Bowen’s former client, invited Bowen to his office where Stephens and allied banking interests told him that the Stephens family and trust would file a proposal the next morning to acquire control of First Commercial. The bank fought off the hostile takeover and the merger was implemented. Bowen became board chairman and president of both the bank and the holding company. He retired in 1990.
For 22 years, he taught an annual course on ethics in banking at the Stonier Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He retired in 1990.
When Clinton decided in the summer of 1991 to run for president, he asked Bowen to become his chief of staff. The governor would soon be spending nearly all his time out of the state and he wanted a strong hand running affairs for him.
It was widely viewed as a move by Clinton to prevent the lieutenant governor, Jim Guy Tucker, from assuming full power in his absence. A George Fisher cartoon in the Arkansas Gazette showed Clinton, suitcases in hand, walking out of his office with a grinning Bowen seated at his desk and a brooding Tucker mopping the floor in the background. “Well, ta ta, Bill,” Clinton says. “I know you’ll take good care of things in my absence.”
Bowen’s memoir seemed to confirm that objective. Tucker believed the Constitution devolved the full powers of the office on him in Clinton’s lengthy absences. The Boy from Altheimer recounts the battles in the office over the next year. Clinton was elected in November 1992 and soon resigned to give Tucker uncontested executive authority.
In August 1993, President Clinton planned to appoint Bowen chief executive of the Farm Credit Administration. Bowen wrote him that it would not be wise to appoint a commercial banker to the position in the competitive environment of banking and the farm credit system.
Meantime, in the 1990s, when the competition of hospitals and health maintenance organizations reached a fever pitch, Bowen became president of a new HMO, Healthsource Arkansas, a partnership of Healthsource, Inc., of New Hampshire and the St. Vincent Infirmary medical system.
But, after two years, Bowen returned to the law. Faculty members at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law urged the chancellor to make Bowen the dean for two years to build the school’s development program while it made a national search for a new dean. At the age of 72, Bowen became the dean in July 1995.
After he stepped down, in 1998, Bowen gave the school’s largest gift in its history, to establish the Bowen Scholars Program. In 1999, the school’s faculty renamed the school the William H. Bowen School of Law.
Early in his legal career, Bowen was president of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. He was president of the Pulaski County Bar Association, member of the Arkansas Bar Association and the Arkansas Bankers Association as well as serving as chairman of the board of the Arkansas Arts Center. He was on the Federal Advisory Council to the Federal Reserve and a member of the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.
A lifetime member of the Methodist Church, his church home for 60 years was the First United Methodist Church of Little Rock where he taught what became the Bowen-Cabe Sunday School Class for over 25 years.
Survivors are his wife, Connie; children, Cynthia Blanchard (Charles) of Russellville and William Scott Bowen and Patty Barker, both of Little Rock; grandchildren, Mary Pat Hardman (John) of Fayetteville, Charles (Chip) Bowen Blanchard (Leslie) of Russellville, Charles Scott Bowen, Lesley Benjamin (Paul) of Austin, Tx., Andrew Bowen, Will Barker (Lauren) of Houston, Tx., Henry Barker, Mary Katherine Barker, and John Barker. Also survived by 6 great-grandchildren and special friend, DeAngelo Mabry.
Visitation will be from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, November 16, 2014 at Ruebel Funeral Home, 6213 W. Markham, Little Rock. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m., Monday, November 17, at First United Methodist Church, 723 Center Street, Little Rock. In lieu of flowers the family asked that memorials be made to First United Methodist Church of Little Rock, fumclr.org.