Local icon John Bower passes away at age 100
by Dennis Sharkey
John Bower, a Jefferson County icon and idol to many, has died.
Bower passed away at home on June 18. He celebrated his 100th birthday this past December.
He is most known for his decades of service in the Kansas House of Representatives and leading the charge against liquor by the drink during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
Bower was married twice but never had children of his own. He has two adopted children, Ruth Edmonds, McLouth, and Ronald Bower, Portland, Ore.
Most of Bower’s years on Earth were spent as a farmer and a preacher. Bower returned to the farm after college and continued farming until the early 1990s.
Bower got his start in politics when he ran for the local school board and never had the intention of making a career of policy making. His career in the Kansas Statehouse almost never happened.
When it came time in 1952 to make a run at the Statehouse, Bower admitted that he was reluctant and it took a lot of consulting. After filing for the seat a Jefferson County commissioner also filed for the seat. Bower said had he known before, that probably would have discouraged him from running.
Bower would be re-elected 11 more times and spent a total of 24 years in the Statehouse representing Jefferson and parts of Leavenworth counties.
Bower made most of his impact in his community of McLouth where he lived most of his life. Bower died in his home about a mile north of town. McLouth City Administrator Carl Chalfant said Bower and his family have been a pillar of the city for decades.
Chalfant said Bower was known for giving sermons and leading prayers at the Threshing Bee or other community events.
“He has been such a community leader for so long,” Chalfant said. “Up until just a few years ago he was still at all the events.”
Kansas Senate candidate Ron Ellis, Meriden, remembers Bower’s final years in the legislature but had most of his interactions with him at the Jefferson County Historical Society.
Ellis said Bower was a kind man but would also take on a challenge.
“He was a very honest man and he didn’t have a mean spirit,” Ellis said. “Number one he was a good Christian. You could always tell that. But he didn’t hold back.”
Ellis said Bower was a man that anyone could turn to for advice.
“It was amazing all the subjects he could speak on,” Ellis said.
Ellis, who just retired from 37 years of teaching history and civics from Oskaloosa, said Bower’s politics and personality were perfect for Jefferson County and Kansas.
“He worked well in Kansas,” Ellis said. “I don’t know about New York or Chicago.”
When interviewed in December Bower attributed his long stay in the Statehouse to his ability to connect with other people and he always sought the support of local newspaper editors.
“I went out of my way to cultivate support,” Bower said.
Valley Falls Vindicator Editor and Publisher Clarke Davis said many times he disagreed with stances Bower took on different issues. But Bower had a charismatic way about himself.
“You couldn’t help but like the guy,” Davis said.
Bower was most known for successfully keeping intoxicating liquors by the drink out of Kansas until its full repeal in 1987.
Bower introduced several bills in the 1950s and ‘60s to battle liquor by the drink. In the late 1950s Bower advocated for voting rights for rural areas. When the 1948 amendment was approved by voters it allowed for communities to put the question to a vote. Bower believed it was unfair to not allow those living outside the city limits to vote.
“When the people of Kansas voted for the return of legal liquor, they also voted to respect the wishes of the people in local areas not to have liquor sold in their communities,” Bower told the House floor in a 1957 statement.
Bower also introduced bills that raised the drinking age and had other restrictions on how liquor could be sold.
Up until his final days in the House he believed that most Kansans were in favor of prohibition and if given the chance would vote to repeal legal liquor.
He pointed to voting figures in his own county. In a 1963 hearing Bower said that out of 619 incorporated towns only 228 had liquor stores. He said since 1948 only one town voted in favor of bringing a liquor store to town while six others kicked retailers out of town.
“I believe this reflects an awakening of the people,” Bower said during the hearing.
When liquor by the drink forces mounted a heavy campaign across the state in 1970 Bower pulled a political stunt when he introduced a bill that would put a constitutional amendment question back to voters that would bring prohibition back to the state.
The pro-liquor forces campaigned on a right for Kansans to vote on the issue. Bower preached to the legislature and anyone else who would listen that it was propaganda.
“Let’s see how many of those bleeding hearts who talk about denying the right to vote on liquor by the drink will be just as willing to give the people the right to vote on prohibition,” Bower told the Kansas City Star in 1969.
The pro forces argued that it would raise more revenues for the state. Bower illustrated that the social and economic costs of dealing with alcoholism far outweighed any tax revenues.
“When alcohol is more readily available, more is used,” Bower told the entire house in a March 13, 1969, address. “Money spent for alcohol is money more than wasted.”
Bower later admitted that he knew the ploy had no chance but believed that it would get a dialogue started.
“My resolution for prohibition was a calculated move to point to the real issue,” Bower told radio station KOFO in 1970. “It was the best way I could think of to show that the issue is the open saloon and not the right to vote.”
The ability for Jefferson County to have six school districts that are more community centered can partly be attributed to Bower. He spent many years as the chairman of the education committee and helped steer the state through the consolidation process along with reforming the way schools were structured.
Bower also took on issues that were not popular with his constituents but would stand his ground. Bower was a leader in fighting for equal rights for minorities and fought the death penalty.
“I believe God rules the universe and put men here and for whatever reason over years they developed different races because of different locations and different environments,” Bower said in December about his fight for civil rights. “You are a Christian first. You’ve got to do what you know is right no matter what it costs.”
Bower will be buried on Monday at the McLouth Cemetery. Services will begin at 11 a.m. at the McLouth First Baptist Church. Visitation will be from 10 to 11 a.m.
Memorials can be made to the McLouth First Baptist Church and sent in care of the Barnett Family Funeral Home, P.O. Box 602, Oskaloosa, 66066.
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