Science Serving Maryland's Coasts

Bernie Fowler Honored for his "Cornpone Campaigns"

Michael W. FinchamJune 2, 2016

In 1969, Bernie Fowler gave a short speech to the Parents and Teachers Association of Prince Frederick County. His message: he would be resigning as president of the PTA. Then he wrote a short letter to Governor Marvin Mandel. His message: He would be resigning as president of the Maryland State Board of Education.  Fowler, owner of a small boat rental business on the Patuxent River, was going run for political office.

He decided to run first for the Calvert County Board of Commissioners and launched what he called his "corn pone campaign."  He dressed his kids in sporty hats, got them to carry signs saying "Vote for My Dad," then loaded them into his Chrysler and started driving all the two-lane roads in a rural county that had only one stop light and one movie theater.  To hustle up votes, the kids would knock on a door, and Fowler would give his spiel while his kids ran ahead down the street to knock on the front door of the next house. "People would be waiting for me when I got there," says Fowler.

It was a method with a message:  it was time to take steps to stop the decline of the Patuxent River.  "I want this job because I think I can make a difference." He repeated this promise at every front door.  And he repeated this plea: "I want you to take a look at me, remember me, and please remember me in November."

He kept his promise and he made a difference, and the voters remembered him for a lot of Novembers. Fowler served as county commissioner for 12 years and led a three-county battle to force upriver treatment plants to reduce sewage discharges into the Patuxent River. His campaign was just getting started. He served as Maryland state senator for 11 years and as citizen environmental leader for more than 50 years. For the last 27 years he has led an annual Patuxent River Wade-In, a revival meeting that brings together citizens, scientists, politicians to renew their vows to restore the Bay and its rivers.

photo of Bernie Fowler and U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (right, kneeling)
The "sneaker index" for water clarity: At the 28th annual Patuxent River Wade-In, Bernie Fowler (left) and Congressman Steny Hoyer (right) measure what the depth of water was when Bernie could no longer see his white shoes. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

The legislators who worked with him also remember Bernie Fowler.  And four decades after he launched his first "corn-pone" campaign, the general assemblies of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania passed official state proclamations honoring him for his long-standing environmental leadership.

Fowler received his three state proclamations on Thursday May 12 at a dinner ceremony organized by Ann Swanson, executive director of  the Chesapeake Bay Commission. This tri-state agency makes policy recommendations to the general assemblies of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.  Fowler has served on this commission for 32 years.

"What can I say about Bernie Fowler?" said U.S. Congressman Steny Hoyer, an invited speaker. "I can't put into words what everyone here feels." Political leaders, however, are seldom at a  loss for words for long.  P. Michael Sturla from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives spoke about the first time he heard the always eloquent Bernie Fowler give a speech. "I didn't know who this guy was," he said, but he could feel Fowler's passion for restoring the Chesapeake Bay.  "I was moved nearly to tears in terms of what this meant. I know it has made the Chesapeake Bay a special thing for millions of people. "

For his long-running leadership, Fowler would also get a large bound portfolio featuring the three official proclamations by the legislatures of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.  Maryland State Senator Thomas "Mac" Middleton made the presentation, and L. Scott Lingamfelter from the Virginia House of Delegates added some concluding remarks.  In search of the right words, he turned to a famous American general and statesman.  "George Marshall had a great saying," said Lingamfelter.  " 'There is no limit to the good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit.'" On this evening -- whether he liked it or not -- Fowler would get the credit.

In his closing comments, Fowler wasn't going to let anyone forget their responsibility for restoring the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay.  "We all have something that we've been gifted with that we could do to make this place a better place to live," he said. "You have the talent, you have the energy, you have the intellect, you have everything you need to do these things."

Now 92 years old, Fowler has no intention of suspending the "corn-pone campaign" he launched back in 1969. And he clearly expects others to carry his message far into the future, ending his sermon with words from Sir Winston Churchill, another long-ago politician who was seldom at a loss for the right words.  "'Never give up. Never. Never. Never give up.'"

Photo, top left: Bernie Fowler and songwriter Tom Wisner check sea grasses at one of the early Patuxent River Wade-Ins in 1990. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham


About Michael W. Fincham

Michael W. Fincham is a science writer, documentary producer and editor of Chesapeake Quarterly. A Maryland native, he is currently producing a documentary on the ups and downs of the blue crab fishery in Chesapeake Bay.

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