May 10, 2013

Happy 100th birthday, Charlie

Retired educator reflects on life in Dalton

Rachel Brown

— Charlie Bowen, by his own admission, “didn’t think too much of Dalton” when he accepted a job as principal of Fort Hill School in 1940.

Bowen, who turns 100 today, said he caught a case of “Daltonitis.” Instead of leaving, he became even more involved in the community.

Now, the community is honoring him.

On Saturday, the public is invited to Bowen’s birthday party from 2 to 4 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Dalton’s fellowship hall. Attendees are asked not to bring gifts.

Bowen began his education career in the early 1930s and held several jobs in other counties in Georgia before coming to Dalton as principal of Fort Hill School in 1940. He then served in the Navy from 1943-46 and taught math at Georgia Tech for four months. In 1946, he moved back to Dalton where he became principal of Dalton High School until 1968. He was then promoted to assistant superintendent of the school system for about a year before working as superintendent from 1969-1975.

Career in education

Bowen was born May 10, 1913 in Austell and grew up in Sumter County. When he was in the eighth and ninth grades, his father was the principal at a school across the road from the family farm, and he taught Bowen math and Latin.

Bowen attended college during the Great Depression. His first year at the University of Georgia, he said, cost him $317. Bowen joked that during his senior year he “splurged” and spent $350. He obtained a bachelor’s degree with majors in math and Latin. He later returned to the school to earn a master’s degree and did graduate work at Peabody College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

After graduating in 1934, jobs were hard to find, Bowen said, and he finally took a job as principal of a school in Webster County. There were seven teachers for the 11 grades there, and six of the teachers were in their first year. Their second year at the school was cut to just seven months as economic times were hard, and they didn’t get all their pay until three years later, he said.

A couple of jobs later, he ended up in Dalton. At first, he said, he wasn’t very impressed with all the bedspreads, a football field surrounded by a single strand of barbed wire and wooden bleachers that would seat 300. Yet a man his father had taught with had asked him to come for the interview, so Bowen agreed.

When he arrived, the only schools in Dalton were Dalton High, the all-black Emery Street, Fort Hill, North Dalton, City Park and Crown Point, he said. Several of those schools have since closed or moved, and new ones have opened.

Fort Hill, he said, was the first in the district to have its own cafeteria. After a hiatus in which he joined the Navy and taught briefly at Georgia Tech, Bowen was asked to come back to the district, this time as the principal of Dalton High School.

When he returned, still with the intention of staying for only two or three years, there were just two clubs at the school. At that time, he said, the school had assembly almost every week, and he insisted Dalton High would be one of the best high schools in the state. The current high school building, visible from Waugh Street, was built under Bowen’s administration as superintendent. He and wife Irene, also a teacher, retired just before the school opened in 1976.

“I love people,” Bowen said. “In all the years I was principal of the high school, I loved my students, and I knew just about every one of them.”


Bowen said he and his now late wife, Irene, prided themselves on the way they dealt with their students. They never paddled, he said, and they took time out to counsel and give guidance and advice. Some of his toughest students later turned out to be among his best friends, Bowen said.

“I’ve had the feeling there are not many people living who do not have some good points,” he said. “I don’t care how bad some of my students are, I could find the good.”

Dalton Utilities President and CEO Don Cope said if not for Bowen he wouldn’t be where he is today. As a high school student, Cope fell behind on the credits he needed to graduate, he said, and Bowen as principal tutored him on the side to help him catch up.

“He believed in people, he believed in me. He gave me a second chance,” Cope said. “I always loved Mr. Bowen because Mr. Bowen was steady, very thoughtful, a real true Christian man.”

He isn’t the only former student who said Bowen made an impact.

Local insurance agent Dan Combs described Bowen as “the ultimate gentleman” when Combs was at Dalton High School.

“His basic demeanor, and that he was such the ultimate gentleman, that it just caused you to just feel obligated to respect him and to follow his direction and advice,” Combs said.

Even today, he said, as a fellow Rotarian, he still can’t refer to the man as “Charlie.”

“He will always be ‘Mr. Bowen’ to me,” Combs said.

Mayor David Pennington said he wishes Dalton could have Bowen for 100 more years. Pennington described Bowen when he was a student at the high school as “the same towering figure he is now.”

“There are some people that lead by an overwhelming personality,” he explained, “... and then some people are just quiet leaders. ... When he speaks, everybody listens, and he’s not a loud, exciting type person, but he’s just a very reserved, quiet, dignified leader.”

So what has he done over the years to take care of himself?

Bowen said he tries to make himself eat, even when he isn’t especially hungry, and he tries to stay positive and not complain. He loves people and takes joy from his interactions with them.

Is he excited about turning 100?

Bowen smiles when asked the question.

“Not so much so. I might be excited about 101.”

Community involvement

Bowen has had several honors and awards. They include carrying the Olympic Torch during the Atlanta games, earning the Silver Beaver Award from the Boy Scouts of America for his efforts with that organization, receiving the Service to Mankind Award from the Sertoma Club of Dalton, and numerous others. He is a member of the Northwest Georgia Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame.

He has been a member of Dalton’s Rotary Club since 1941 — 72 years.

Rotary President Brian Anderson said that while he’s known Bowen for only a few years, he views him as one of the most respected members there. Rotary members celebrated Bowen’s birthday a few days early by presenting him with a cake on Tuesday.

“He is at the Rotary any time his health allows,” Anderson said.

Bowen, he said, interacts with people in the same quick-witted way one might expect if he were still just 40 or 50. His service to the club has earned him several prestigious awards, he said.

He was active with Dalton’s Habitat for Humanity, an organization provides assistance with funding and labor to build houses for people who otherwise might not have them. The organization recently broke ground on its 50th home. He was president of the local organization for five years and has been a board member since 1987.

He has also been active in the United Way of Northwest Georgia, Junior Achievement, Big Brothers Big Sisters and several education and community service organizations.

Bowen has been a member of First Baptist Church of Dalton for decades. He has been a deacon, Sunday school teacher, chairman of deacons and Sunday school superintendent.

His family includes a daughter, Peggy Bowen Green, son and daughter-in-law Charles and Claire Bowen; six grandchildren (Tracy Lovelady, Joanie Dufek, Chuck Bowen, Benjamin Bowen, Michael Bowen and Kittye Parker); and six great-grandchildren.