Pasquotank County, NC

William "Bill" Charles Bowser Obituary

A PIONEER LAID TO REST: Groundbreaking surfman remembered

Staff Writer

Sunday, July 16, 2006

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon said he'll never forget the first time watching tears 
fall down the face of William "Bill" Charles Bowser 10 years ago. It was during the playing of the 
"Star-Spangled Banner" at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Bowser was among the last surviving members of the Coast Guard's former all-black Pea Island 
Lifesaving Station recognized for its earlier role in the historic 1896 E.S. Newman vessel rescue 
of nine people during a treacherous storm.

Bowser, a surfman at Pea Island from 1935 to 1938, received the prestigious Gold Lifesaving 
Medal in 1996 on behalf of that daring crew of 1896. The Pea Island station in Dare County was 
decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1947.

But it was a different type of heroism that was recognized Saturday. Family, friends and Coast 
Guard members paid tribute at a memorial service Saturday for Bowser, 91, who died June 28 
at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center nursing home in Decatur, Ga.

"He was treated so badly as a black man in those days (the 1930s) and said, 'I didn't think those 
words included me,'" Rochon said he recalled Bowser saying after he cried during the national 
anthem. "He was angry about the prejudices. Everybody was singing the words and the actions 
were contrary. He displayed a lot of pain at that moment."

Last year, Bowser and Herbert Collins  the only two remaining survivors of the Pea Island 
station  were honored last year during a Coast Guard ceremony at Elizabeth City State 
University. Collins, 85, attended Bowser's service Saturday.

In recent years, Rochon and Bowser traveled around the country together to tell stories of the 
historic Pea Island Lifesaving Station.

"Many of us in the Coast Guard feel he was the shoulders we stood on," said Rochon, 56, who 
first met Bowser at that 1996 ceremony in Washington, D.C. "He went through rough times and 
paved the way. I don't think I'd have gotten this far (to admiral) if it wasn't for him helping to break 
down the barriers of prejudice."

On Saturday, Rochon recalled the second time he watched Bowser cry during the national 
anthem. But this time, it was "tears of joy because all of you have destroyed 50 years of 
bitterness from our hearts," Rochon recalled Bowser saying.

Rochon said Bowser had lived long enough to overcome bitterness from his earlier struggles as 
a pioneering African-American breaking color barriers in the military.

Admiral Rochon, the Atlantic commander of the Coast Guard's Maintenance and Logistics 
Command, was among several members of the Coast Guard that recognized one of their heroic 
own who broke the color barrier in the 1930s and paved the way for other blacks, like Rochon, 
to serve and rise in the Coast Guard's ranks.

The American flag was presented to Bowser's son, Charles Hopkins Bowser, and a 21-gun 
salute followed by the playing of taps at a memorial service held in Cornerstone Missionary 
Baptist Church in Elizabeth City.

While Bowser was remembered for his Coast Guard days, an even bigger tribute was paid to 
him by his surviving family members and friends who shared numerous stories of kindness, 
love and humanitarianism displayed by Bowser during his long life.

Saturday's storytelling was a bit ironic, speakers at the service said, because Bowser himself 
was well-known for his storytelling ability.

"When I met him 42 years ago at the University of Illinois, my first impression was he is 
outgoing, friendly, ready, intelligent and a very sharp dresser," his surviving wife Sheilah 
Banks Bowser of Atlanta, Ga., said. "Through the years, that never changed."

He also had a penchant for honesty, she said.

"If you ever were brazen enough and wanted to hear the honest truth about something, Bill 
would be the man to see," she said.

One time, after putting on pounds over a long period of time, she asked him if she looked 

"He said you're not one of the biggest I've ever seen, but you're not one of the smallest," she 
said to laughter.

His son Charles said he was able to achieve a dream of becoming a Navy pilot because of his 
father's encouragement.

He said he was the second African-American to complete the Navy Test Pilot School.

"Because of him, I was able to do that," Bowser Jr. said.

Bowser was born June 27, 1915, on Roanoke Island and his family moved to Elizabeth City 
when he was 6 after his father, William S. Bowser, was forced to retire early from the Coast 
Guard due to an injury.

"Bill Charles" as he was known attended elementary school in Elizabeth City and high school 
in Norfolk, Va., He graduated from Elizabeth City State Teachers College in 1955 and later 
earned a master's degree in special education from Rider College in New Jersey.

He formerly taught at Pasquotank County Elementary School with his wife Elsie

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