Bowen, LR lawyer of many talents, dies

Depression child became civic leader

Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor (right) listens to William H. Bowen, then-president of the Arkansas Banking Association, after the senator spoke to the group on May 16, 1983.

William H. Bowen, a south Arkansas cotton farmer's son and onetime Navy fighter pilot whose remarkable turns as a lawyer, banker, civic leader, educator and political adviser in Arkansas spanned six decades, has died.

"Bill epitomized a life fully and well lived," said Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, a longtime Arkansas businessman who was White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and whose friendship with Bowen dates from Bowen's time at the helm of the old First Commercial Bank. "No one has left a more singular wake and legacy."

Bowen, 91, an Altheimer native for whom the University of Arkansas at Little Rock named its W.H. Bowen School of Law, was taken to Baptist Health Medical Center after choking on food Thursday at his residence in Fox Ridge, a senior citizen living facility on Chenal Valley Drive in west Little Rock, Pulaski County Coroner Gerone Hobbs said Friday. He was pronounced dead at 6:06 p.m. Thursday, Hobbs said.

Bowen's life was one in which his retirement years were every bit as successful as the ones leading up to retirement -- those as a tax lawyer who parlayed that experience into heading the state's largest bank at the time, First Commercial, for 20 years, all the while maintaining a robust civic life on behalf of his city and state, as well as raising a family.

He was 68 when then-Gov. Bill Clinton tapped him in 1991 to be his gubernatorial chief of staff to help the future president maintain the delicate balance of running state government with running for the White House.

Bowen, who during his life often entertained the thought of running for public office but never did, once said that little in his professional and civic life had prepared him for the unrealistic expectations he encountered from Arkansans as Clinton's top aide.

"The negative side is that people expect from their governor the impossible sometimes," he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette six weeks into the job. "There's no counterpart of that in the private sector that I have seen. The request for jobs, attention, favors, etcetera, is unending."

Still, he commanded the respect of Clinton's gubernatorial team and his campaign team. Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, was one of the staff members who came to admire Bowen, calling him "Captain," as in captain, or quarterback, of a football team, recalled Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

"He was bigger than life," Rutherford said. "He was both good and great."

Clinton said he would be forever grateful to Bowen for his service to him and to the rest of the state.

"I was saddened to hear of the death of my good friend Bill Bowen, whose fascinating life was a serial Arkansas success story," Clinton said in a statement. "From his humble beginnings in Altheimer to his service as a Naval fighter pilot in World War II, to his distinguished career in law and banking, to his public service as a tireless advocate for education and economic development, and as Chief of Staff in the governor's office when I ran for President, something I couldn't have done without him.

"Arkansas is a better place because of Bill Bowen's fine mind, larger-than-life spirit, and true service. My thoughts and prayers are with Connie, his children, and his entire family."

Even then, with his service to Clinton, Bowen's second act wasn't over. Bowen later would be tapped as dean of the UALR law school, at the time still knocked by some who thought that a relatively small state didn't need two law schools, the other one being the institution from which Bowen graduated, the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville.

Bowen's tenure leading the UALR law school from 1995 to 1997 "certainly reduced the amount of discussion about it," because Bowen commanded such respect and goodwill in the legal and business communities," said Chuck Goldner, dean emeritus and still a professor at the law school.

More than that, Bowen was able to show law students where studying law could take someone, Goldner said.

Bowen "was an excellent example of what we try to instill in our students: how to act professional, how to be civil and recognize the importance of public service," Goldner said.

Bowen often attributed his legal education to his success beyond the courtroom.

"It's great training for life," he once said. "It teaches you how to handle yourself in adversarial positions."

There was no better evidence of that than the progress of First Commercial, Bowen having taken it over in 1971, when it was the state's fifth largest bank, and retiring in 1991, when it was the state's largest financial institution.

"He was a trained lawyer with a skilled, ordered and persuasive manner," McLarty said. "He could make his case in the courtroom, the boardroom or with the customer. He could close the deal."

But the success took years of hard work.

"He showed up every day and got things done with a purpose and form," McLarty said. "It wasn't an overnight success but the result of a long effort."

Bowen's successor at First Commercial, later bought by Regions Bank, was Barnett Grace. He said Bowen took the starch out of the banking business.

"He was a lot of fun to work with," Grace said. "We worked real hard. He had a demanding schedule of his own. He came in early and worked late. But he made it fun. He had a good wit. He didn't mind people making jokes."

Bowen had a light touch. Grace recalled a colleague being upset about something and marching into Bowen's office to visit with him about it. Upon leaving, the colleague said, "I'm not exactly sure what he said, but I sure do feel better."

One of five sons of a cotton farmer and ginner, Bowen was born on May 6, 1923, in Altheimer, a small community in Jefferson County. The Great Depression was just around the corner.

"I remember it with affection and appreciation and although my entire lifetime in school was the Depression -- '29 to '41 -- all I remember was that it was a good life," Bowen once told an interviewer. "I wore used clothes and didn't think anything about it because everyone else did."

He graduated from Altheimer High School in 1941 and joined the Navy to train as an aviator. Bowen became a carrier-qualified fighter pilot flying F4F Wildcats and F6F Hellcats, but he never saw action. He went on to retire as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserves, serving as officer in charge of an intelligence unit based in Little Rock.

He earned his law degree in 1949. It was in Fayetteville where he met his wife, Constance, whom he married in 1947. The couple have three children: Dr. William Scott Bowen of Little Rock, Cynthia Bowen Blanchard of Russellville and Patricia Bowen Barker of Little Rock.

Bowen went on to earn a master of laws degree in taxation from New York University in 1950 and worked in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Tax Court and then for the Department of Justice.

The Bowens moved to Little Rock in 1954, and for the next 17 years, Bowen worked for the law firm of Mehaffy, Smith and Williams, later called Smith, Williams, Friday and Bowen. At the same time, he taught classes in taxation and estate planning as a law school adjunct instructor at UALR.

He was active in the community, everything from serving as president of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce to helping raise money for the Boy Scouts toward the purchase of the land for what now is the Blass Scout Reservation near Damascus. From 1970-71, he served as president of the Pulaski County Bar Association.

One of his clients was the Arkansas Bankers Association, which introduced him to his future banking career. In 1971, he became president of what was then known as Commercial National Bank. During his banking tenure, he became chairman of the board and chief executive officer, and in 1983 spearheaded a merger with First National Bank, creating First Commercial Corp. Bowen retired in 1991 but stayed on the bank's board of directors until 1998.

French Hill, U.S. representative-elect for the 2nd Congressional District, is a longtime banker who first worked under Bowen in the summers during his college years.

Bowen, he said, would be remembered for "his intellect, his judgment and his tremendous loyalty to our community, our state and our nation."

A Section on 11/14/2014