Michael H. 'Mike' Bowler, veteran Baltimore Sun journalist and Baltimore County Board of Education member, dies

Michael H. “Mike” Bowler, a veteran Baltimore Sun reporter and editor who covered the education beat for decades and later served as a member of the Baltimore County Board of Education, died Monday at his Catonsville home from pancreatic cancer.

He was 77.

“Mike was a good friend as a journalist and as a Baltimore County School Board member. He was always interested in public education,” said Robert Y. Dubel, of Glen Arm, who headed Baltimore County public schools for 16 years before retiring in 1992.

“Mike was a fair person, and as a reporter, he was always fair and accurate. He was always interested in telling the story of education,” Dr. Dubel said. “And he was an excellent school board member and, outside of the teachers I’ve known, he had a great interest in public education.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who has been president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County since 1992, also was a friend for decades.

“When I think of Mike Bowler, I think of the best of journalism and humanity. The man cared so much about education, people, teachers and children,” Dr. Hrawbowski said. “He taught us to tell the truth on all occasions and to live authentically. I think of his great sense of humor, smile and laughter, and we will never forget that which reflected a very serious and generous spirit.”

G. Jefferson Price III, a former Sun editor and foreign correspondent, was a longtime newsroom colleague.

“Mike Bowler was the consummate newspaperman in his career as a reporter and later as an editor,” said Mr. Price, a former Glyndon resident, who now lives in South Dartmouth, Mass.

“He had all the requisite qualities. He could smell mendacity a mile away, though he was amused by scoundrels, he could explain an issue easily and interestingly, presenting both sides without partisanship,” Mr. Price said. “He was full of curiosity, enthusiasm, energy and most important, a very hearty sense of humor.”

Michael Hendrix Bowler — he never used his given name or middle initial — was born with printer’s ink in his veins, in Helena, Mont., where he grew up.

His father, Clyde Hendrix Phillips, who was a newspaperman on the Helena Daily Independent, died of leukemia when his wife, Edeen Elizabeth Carlson, a homemaker and musician, was pregnant with their son.

His father’s newsroom colleague, Duane Wilson “Doc” Bowler, later married his friend’s widow and adopted Mr. Bowler.

“He got to know Mike’s mother when he came out to visit his father during his illness,” said Mr. Bowler’s wife of 55 years, the former Margaret French, who is a retired CCBC Catonsville professor and financial aid officer.

Mr. Bowler’s excursion into journalism began at Helena High School when he was on the staff of the WASH, an underground newspaper that had been critical of school issues.

“It was a one-edition enterprise, because the principal threatened to kick them out of school,” said his sister, Bonnie Bowler, of Helena.

After graduating in 1959 from Helena High School, Mr. Bowler studied at Columbia University where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1963.

Mr. Bowler taught English and social studies in Oceanside, N.Y., before graduating in 1965 from the Columbia School of Journalism with a master’s degree.

He began his professional career as a reporter for The Reporter Dispatch in White Plains, N.Y., and later worked in public relations for the Lutheran Church of America. While working for The Suffolk Sun in Deer Park, N.Y., Mr. Bowler learned firsthand a lesson about newspaper economics.

“The Suffolk Sun was trying to compete against Newsday on Long Island, when the sheriff arrived one day to padlock up the place, and they knew it was all over,” recalled his wife, with a laugh.

In 1969, Mr. Bowler joined the staff of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as an education reporter.

“He was hired to cover desegregation of schools in the South. He had to go out into the countryside to talk to people, but with those New York license plates, people wouldn’t talk,” his wife said. “So, he always had to go with a local reporter who talked Southern in order to get them to tell Mike things.”

J. Reginald “Reg” Murphy — who was then editor of the Atlanta newspaper and later became publisher and CEO of The Sun — fired Mr. Bowler after he wrote a memo circulated to editors criticizing the hiring practices of Rich’s department store, the newspaper’s largest advertiser.

He joined the local staff of The Sun in December 1970 and was assigned to the police and later the obituary beat.

“He dutifully had written an obit for an Obrycki when an editor came over and explained to Mike that there wasn’t an apostrophe between the ‘O’ and ‘B’ and Obrycki wasn’t Irish,” his wife said.

Mr. Bowler became a beloved and respected newsroom presence. For many years before smoking was banned from the newspaper’s former Calvert Street home, Mr. Bowler’s head seemed perpetually wreathed in smoke from his ever-present cigar, which he puffed while typing his stories, first on a typewriter, and by the mid-1970s, on a computer.

“Mike was one of those reporters when I got to The Sun in the early 1970s, who’d talk to you, work with you, and mentor you,” said Tom Horton, The Sun’s former environmental writer who lives in Salisbury. “He always had time for you. It was a godsend to have someone like Bowler there to help you.”

Mr. Horton, a professor of environmental studies who writes a column for the Bay Journal, recalled the first time Mr. Bowler took him to a city school board meeting.

“Our first stop was the Calvert House for a few beers. Mike probably already knew what the story was going to be anyway,” Mr. Horton recalled. “And that was my introduction to The Sun. He proved to be an amazing influence on me.”

At the time of his retirement from The Sun in 2004, Mr. Bowler reflected on his more than three decade career with the newspaper.

“That’s a long time for anyone to work for one employer,” he wrote, in his farewell Education Beat column.

“I changed jobs several times, working for The Sun three times and The Evening Sun twice. For nearly half of those three-plus decades, I wrote editorials and edited The Evening Sun’s opposite-editorial page,” he wrote. “But I always kept at least two fingers on education and wrote this twice-a-week column for 10 years.”

Mr. Bowler speculated on “how many millions of words flowed from my computer and before that.” After 1990, when The Sun’s library went online, he accumulated 1,444 bylined stories, wrote more than 900 Education Beat columns, about 200 of them on the subject of reading alone.

“People have asked me how I could possibly have endured, but in fact the education beat is endlessly fascinating,” he wrote. “It covers so much of the waterfront of human activity and emotions.”

Jim Burger, a former Sun photographer, said many Baltimore writers got their start thanks to Bowler and his Evening Sun editorial page.

“It’s where I began,” said Burger, a Remington resident. “I’ve gone on to write for other publications, and even had a couple columns of my own, but it all started with Mike saying, ‘That’s a good story. Write it up, and I’ll run it.’”

During his tenure on the education beat, Mr. Bowler covered nine city school chiefs — including the first African-American, Roland N. Patterson, and the first woman, Alice Pinderhughes.

“Covering these men and women taught me that leadership is everything. There does not exist a successful school with weak leadership,” he wrote, adding, “I also survived seven Sunpapers publishers.”

“Mike was an educator in the best sense of the word. He was always teaching us what valued and really mattered and he did that until the end of his life,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “I love that man so much. He changed my life and pushed me to be the very best, and that went way back. Whatever he did, he always knew we could be better.”

Ernest F. Imhoff, a retired Sun and Evening Sun reporter and editor, recalled Mr. Bowler as “an offbeat Renaissance newspaperman .”

“He was a skilled education reporter, editorial writer, school system bureaucrat, liberal, Sunpapers striker, freedom of the press champion, lapsed cigar smoker, proud Columbia Journalism School alumnus, happy Evening Sun editorial writer, while most often morning Sun staffer,” said Mr. Imhoff, a Mount Washington resident, and friend of nearly 50 years.

Tom Linthicum, former Sun reporter, editor and business executive who later was executive editor of the Daily Record, became friends with Mr. Bowler during their days together at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Mike Bowler was the epitome of a good newspaperman and even a better person. He pursued his work and his life with singular passion and enthusiasm that inspired those around him,” said Mr. Linthicum, an Alexandria, Va., resident, who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“He believed deeply that journalists are called to help make the world a better place and his years of education coverage attest eloquently to that,” he said.

After leaving The Sun, Mr. Bowler was director of communications for the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education from 2004 to 2007.

In 2010, Gov. Martin J. O’Malley appointed Mr. Bowler to a five-year term on the Baltimore County school board, where he represented District 1, which included Arbutus, Catonsville, Lansdowne and Relay, until he was replaced in 2015 by Gov. Larry Hogan.

The longtime Catonsville resident was a longtime volunteer at UMBC’s Friends of the Library where he worked in the Special Collections Department of the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery, with a focus on its H.L. Mencken collection.

He enjoyed reading three newspapers a day and for years had been a subscriber to the Daniels County Leader, a conservative Montana weekly.

Mr. Bowler had been active with the Baltimore-Washington News Guild for decades. He volunteered at Hillcrest Elementary School in Catonsville, was a volunteer reader at Relay Elementary School where he read “The Polar Express” to pupils.

Despite being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013, Mr. Bowler continued volunteering at the Banneker Museum in Oella until recent months.

Mr. Bowler and several of his cronies maintained a weekly poker game.

Former State Senator Julian L. “Jack” Lapides, a Bolton Hill resident and poker club member, recalled his friend: “Mike was a sensitive, caring, liberal person and a brilliant writer devoted to excellence in public education. He was also a good poker player and had a wry sense of humor.

In recent years, Mr. Bowler and his wife liked traveling by cruise ship. He was also a rabid Orioles fan, beer can collector and “The Price Is Right” fan.

Plans for a celebration of life service are incomplete.

In addition to his wife and sister, Mr. Bowler is survived by his son, Stephen P. Bowler of Catonsville; two other sisters, Deborah Bowler of Seattle and Barbara Bowler of Billings; and a grandson.

Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed research to this obituary.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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