Dan Bowden was “Ransom’s version of Mr. Chips — the master teacher, the student’s friend, the living embodiment of the school.”
That’s how a writer for the Miami Herald’s former Sunday magazine, Tropic, described the Ransom Everglades educator 30 years ago, a man who, in his 63 years at the Coconut Grove private school, mentored many, as English teacher, department head, college counselor and, most recently, adviser to the head of school.
Bowden, who died at 89 on Friday morning after a long illness according to Ransom Everglades Head of School Penny Townsend, wasn’t immortalized in the fashion of the fictional Mr. Chips., the beloved English teacher in British author’s James Hilton’s 1933 story, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” But he was almost certainly as celebrated, especially in South Florida.
The man known for his colorful, exultant and authoritative Shakespeare classes was also revered on- and off-campus for his annual readings of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” He began in the 1990s and continued for years in the Grove, and at bookstores like Books & Books, or, as in last December’s reading, at his assisted living residence.
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“In the mid-1950s, I started reading it to my class because it was worth reading. And then later on, the head of school said, ‘Why don’t you read it to a larger audience,” Bowden recalled in a 2006 Miami Herald article.
For many in South Florida, the holiday season was incomplete unless they heard Bowden’s sonorous voice read the opening, “Imagine a morning in late November ...”
Bowden, who once defined himself as insecure, “just a little Georgia boy,” called Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” the writer’s “great achievement.” Bowden, in turn, made it his own before his rapt audiences.
“I think the story has qualities that describe me, that I may be in my better moments. That I ah-SPIRE-d to be,” Bowden said for the 2006 Herald article. “I don’t try to sound like Truman Capote, no. I don’t sound like him, whom I met.”
Bowden wasn’t the larger-than-life figure Capote was. He was the man who, in 2004, shared a $5 million Florida Lottery win with 11 members of Ransom’s faculty and staff, and still drove a simple 2003 Honda Civic. A man who probably could have lived anywhere but chose to live in an apartment on campus for nearly the duration of his 63 years at the school.
He never married — not in the conventional sense, anyway — and had no children.
“I never intended to marry Ransom school, but I did. It just happened,” Bowden said in 2006 on the eve of one of his public readings. The school, he said, “became my destiny. This school in many ways has given me an identity.”
Indeed, Townsend said of Bowden in an obituary prepared by the school: “Today we mourn the loss of an extraordinary educator and a legendary figure in our school’s history. Dan Leslie Bowden represented the very best in teaching and academic leadership, and he never lost his fervor for the poetry and prose that inspired him in his youth. I am grateful to have spent time in the glow of his brilliance, and only wish I had the privilege of experiencing him in the classroom.”
Bowden was born in Columbus, Georgia, on June 11, 1929, the youngest in a family of four boys. He graduated from Berry College, a liberal arts school in Rome, Georgia, in 1950. He moved to Hawaii to teach for a couple of year at Kamehameha School, taught in Atlanta’s public school system for a year, and left academia to work for Cunard Steamship Co. in New York.
But literature — and Capote — kept gnawing at him. There’s even a distant relationship between the two men of words but it’s a bit complicated to sort out. Suffice to say, “my cousin married Truman’s father’s brother,” Bowden once explained.
So it was goodbye, New York. Hello, South Florida. The then-peripatetic Bowden wound up in Miami, at Ransom’s door, when it was a boarding school for boys. He landed a job as an English teacher in 1955.
There, he was once described “as intense as a hurricane.” Woe to the student who sighed in class or clicked a pen loud enough to be heard. One has to wonder how Bowden would have taken to the current generation’s myriad distractions from smartphones, social media updates and apps.
Sometimes he’d fret over things like low teacher’s pay. “Where is the proof of all this energy, all this time?” he wondered in the 1988 Tropic article.
“In his miniature world he is a giant, and yet once he steps from the campus for his daily walk he becomes just another presumed eccentric — that guy with the cane who hums and sings and goes tap tap tap through the Grove, pretending sometimes to be blind,” the Tropic writer said of Bowden, who once wondered aloud how he’d be remembered. His musing carried a bit of melancholia.
“I realize when I’m gone I will leave no one behind. There will be no one who is Dan Bowden’s child.”
He was correct only in a technical sense. Instead, every student who passed through his classroom for generations is a Dan Bowden child.
Miami Beach kid Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a documentary filmmaker who won a Grammy for his long form video, “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart,” in 1999, and who has photographed five presidents, a couple Supreme Court justices, and pop culture figureheads like the late Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, graduated from Ransom’s Class of 1970.
“Dan Bowden is the best of Ransom Everglades,” Greenfield-Sanders said for the Ransom obit. “His remarkable wit, steely intelligence and old-school warmth are the DNA of the institution.”
Though ill, Bowden made it to the Ransom campus for commencement in May and was there for the 2018 Alumni Weekend in April where he met with the 2018 student recipients of the Dan Leslie Bowden Fellowships in the Humanities.
Those fellowships were established by an endowment from Jeffrey Miller, who graduated in 1979 and who chairs Breakthrough Miami, the after-school enrichment program founded at Ransom.
Bowden is also the namesake for the Dan Leslie Bowden Library at the Upper School and through the Dan Leslie Bowden Chair of the English Department.
“Dan Bowden will always be the heart and soul of Ransom Everglades,” Miller said for the school’s obit. “Through his love for his students and his inimitable classroom presence, he transformed our school and all of us who had the honor of knowing him. He will never be forgotten.”
Bowden’s survivors include numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces, grandnephews, and their children — and his students. The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be directed to the Dan Leslie Bowden Endowment in the Humanities. Services will be in Georgia.