William Bowers Jr. was an assistant principal who knew how to take a joke. When kindergartners noticed that he accidentally wore mismatched shoes one day, tickled colleagues at Bodkin Elementary School allowed all students to wear mismatched shoes to class the next day.
"Bowers laughed along with the rest of the school," Principal Charles Jansky said.
By his co-workers' accounts, the 41-year-old Bowers also readily volunteered for events. On March 4, he went out to dinner with several teachers before returning to the Pasadena school to host math night with parents and students.
School officials were stunned the next morning when they learned that Bowers had died that night at his home in Glen Burnie. The state medical examiner's office has not determined the cause of death.
Fifteen counselors from the Anne Arundel County public schools arrived at Bodkin on March 6 to help students cope. Students wrote goodbye letters to Bowers and addressed some to his 10-year-old son, Connor. Counselors returned Tuesday to run the school while teachers and administrators attended the funeral at St. Gertrude's Monastery at the Benedictine School for Exceptional Children in Ridgely, on the Eastern Shore.
In the parking lot where the reception was held, teachers gathered for a "Coke salute," hoisting soda cans in honor of Bowers' favorite drink.
"The shock of the sudden loss has been difficult for teachers. They have tried to keep their emotions in so that students can return to normal as quickly as possible," Jansky said. "We had to have 'game faces' on and that was hard."
Retired principal Tom Johnson has taken over Bowers' duties, which included running the Maryland State Assessment tests.
Bowers also worked with special-education students at Bodkin Elementary, a cause that was dear to him. He graduated from the Benedictine School, a residential program for special-education students.
Bowers attended the Benedictine School starting when he was about 10, said Sister Jeannette Murray, the school's director and self-described surrogate mother to Bowers. He was a "slow learner," but small class sizes and supportive teachers made the difference, Sister Jeannette said. He worked hard to graduate from the school several years later and earn his general education diploma.
"He was a perfectionist in everything," Murray said.
In 1987, Bowers went to New Jersey and later to Ireland to begin the 12-year process of becoming a brother in the religious order St. John of God. After three years, he left the order and returned to the United States.
Brother Louis Padierne was impressed by what Bowers accomplished. He recalled that Bowers was a good artist and a "remarkable" man who eventually found that the religious order was not right for him.
"He believed very much in himself," Brother Louis said in a phone interview from Dublin.
Bowers earned a degree in elementary education with a concentration in special education at Salisbury State University. He also earned a master's degree in special education and administration from Wilmington College in 1998. During that time, he taught special education for several years at the Benedictine School.
Bowers was hired as a teacher specialist in special education for Anne Arundel County in 2001. He became assistant principal of Bodkin Elementary in 2005 while continuing to work with children with special needs. Bowers also taught a course on teaching students with autism at Anne Arundel Community College.
Jansky said Bowers was ready to become a principal. Bowers was sensitive to children's feelings and never cut them off when they spoke to him, he said, and loved to stand in the hallway, holding out his hand to give high-fives to students as they walked by.
"If a child needed to talk, he was always very patient," Jansky said.
Bowers also respected the work that teachers did. He gave them coupons for Christmas, volunteering to take over their lunch duty, said Jennifer Elsis, the guidance counselor.
"It truly is a loss in spirit," she said.
Bowers was buried at the cemetery adjacent to the Benedictine School because the school was such an important part of his life, said Julie Bowers, his former wife. The couple met there as special-education teachers. They married in the school's chapel.
The couple remained friends, and Bowers was a devoted father to their son, said Julie Bowers, who lives in Middletown, Del. Bill Bowers often had as much fun playing with a toy as Connor did, she said.
"I think because he [Bill] was so childlike, he related to kids on that level," Julie Bowers said.
The school has formed a committee to decide how to memorialize Bowers, Jansky said. Members have discussed planting a tree or setting up an award in his name.