The College Magazine - Winter 2001
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"Doc" Otis Bowen remembers a life in public service

In his new autobiography (published this fall by the IU Press), Otis Bowen, winner of the College’s 1999 Distinguished Alumni Award, recalls a lifetime spent in public service. Although he was reluctant to take time out of a “busy retirement” to write the book, he felt that it was sufficiently unusual for a doctor to play the political role he did to merit the effort.

Bowen, born in 1918 on a farm in Fulton County, Ind., earned a BA from IU in 1939, followed by an MD in 1942. As it was wartime, he immediately put his medical degree to use in the Pacific Theater. After the war, Bowen began practicing medicine in Bremen, Ind. His political career began in 1952, when he was recruited to run for Marshall County Coroner. He was an Indiana state representative in 1957-58, and from 1961 to 1972, serving stints as minority leader and speaker of the house. In 1973, he was elected governor of Indiana, a position he held until 1981. After several years as a professor of family medicine at IU, he was again brought into the public eye as secretary of health and human services, from 1985 to 1989, under Ronald Reagan. — L.B.

Otis Bowen
IU student
I came to Indiana University for the first time two days before classes started in the fall of 1935. It now takes a U-Haul trailer to take a child to college, but I arrived with a small suitcase and a laundry case. my wardrobe was limited — a suit, a couple sweaters, two pairs of trousers, and the other usual things. My raincoat doubled as a topcoat.

      In the rooming house where I first stayed, my roommate came in drunk the first night. Homesick, not feeling well, and disgusted by his behavior, I moved to a rooming house a block away. My roommate there was Jewish fellow named Feingold from Worcester, Massachusetts. Our bare room had two desks but only one bed, so we slept together. Rent was $3 a week. Our landlady made our bed, but we cleaned the room.

      I was poor, but because I was frugal and I earned some income, I was in pretty good shape for my first year. I limited food expenses to 50 cents a day — 10 cents for a roll and a glass of milk at breakfast, and 20 cents at noon and in the evening. Occasionally I went over my dinner limit and had a blue-plate special costing 25 or 30 cents.

Getting started in politics
      Dad was a Democrat, Mom a Republican, so I could have gone either way. Dad ran unsuccessfully for county surveyor in normally Republican Fulton County. After retiring from teaching, he twice was elected as Aubbenaubbee Township trustee.

      Feeling that President Roosevelt’s policies were making people too dependent on government, I became a Republican about 1940. Dad kidded me, saying I was immature and politically unwise. Kidding him back, I said I had seen the light. When I ran for governor, Dad gave me his full and enthusiastic support. I always voted. I also served as a precinct committee person for four years.

      In 1952, my precinct committee person, Theodore Schweisberger, and Marshall County Republican chair Stewart Robertson asked me to run for county coroner. Our county medical society thought that a physician should fill the position. I didn’t seek the job, but I agreed to take my turn without a thought about where it might lead.

Thoughts on the General Assembly and the legislative process:
      The General Assembly is a co-equal branch of state government. As legislative leader, I felt the legislature lacked stature and pushed for full partnership with the other branches. As governor, I concluded that the General Assembly was powerful enough.

      My experience in both branches strengthens my belief that it is too easy to override a governor’s vetoes. It takes only 51 House votes and 26 Senate votes, the same number needed to pass a bill. I once proposed amending the Constitution to require 60 to 67 in the House and 30 to 34 in the Senate, but the idea went nowhere. It remains a good idea.

      There should be a constitutional amendment requiring the issuers of mandates to pay for them. If the state requires local governments to do something, it should pay. (If the feds mandate the states to act, they should pay.) I’d also like to see an amendment to the Constitution defining the exact purposes for which property taxes can be used.

      I remain optimistic that the legislative process will meet the state’s future needs. At times, the General Assembly will fail Indiana’s citizens on specific matters. At times, it will be slow to provide solutions. Over time, however, the General Assembly’s history is that it will take the right steps and correct failures, sometimes by crafting better laws, and other times by being forced to act by voter pressure or the ballot box.

But it will happen, because the system works.

Reprinted with permission from Doc: A Life in Public Service (IU Press 2000). The book is available in bookstores or may be purchased directly from the IU Press, (800) 842-6796.

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