The professor shuffled into the classroom on the first day of his economics course looking the part: bespectacled, bearded, wearing a dark sports jacket with a button-down sneaking out of a crew neck sweater. But it didn’t take long to realize that Woods Bowman was anything but your typical professor.
This was back in 2001, when I was enrolled in DePaul University’s Public Service Master’s Program. I remember being one of a group of students who were not exactly revved up to start relearning economics. But Woods was excited. As soon as he started talking about it, he came alive. He was energized by the prospect of speaking to students about something he loved, and he wanted to make sure every student understood why and how much it mattered.
More than that, though, I remember the completely authentic fashion in which Woods communicated with the class. It was almost as if he was having a conversation with both himself and with us, and he would laugh out loud in amusement whenever he misspoke, or when one of us said something that was off base. It was easy to see that he was a brilliant man, but his unconscious displays of genuine self-effacement would make everyone else feel comfortable, no matter what background we had carried with us into the classroom. On that first day of economics, I knew that I liked this guy. I had no idea back then just how much there was to like – and respect. I had no idea I had just met one of the most humble public servants I would ever personally come to know.
Henry Woods Bowman was born in West Virginia, earned dual undergraduate degrees in physics and economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then a master’s in public administration and a Ph.D. in economics at Syracuse University. Chicago would become his adopted home, and he spent a career giving back to his city and his state.
Woods possessed a rare and diverse set of talents that qualified him to work all across the public service spectrum. He focused his brainpower on fiscal policy as a research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank. He taught economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 1976 Professor Bowman was elected to the Illinois General Assembly, and served as the 18th District’s State Representative for 14 years. In the early 1990s, Woods would take on the formidable challenge of working as the chief financial officer for Cook County.
In 1995, he returned to his academic roots, this time finding a home at DePaul University’s School of Public Service. And everyone in that department – students and faculty alike – knew just how lucky they were to share in Woods’ extraordinary experience, spirit, and intellect on a daily basis. He is remembered not only for his scholarly contributions, but also for his kindness and generosity. And his open-door approach to life remained the same whether he was talking with students in the office or offering help to the homeless. His DePaul colleague J. Patrick Murphy described how Woods would ask for single bills when receiving change from his lunch tab, so he could give them to those in need. Said Murphy, “They knew him, and he talked to them. This man in his very quiet way was doing an awful lot of good.”
Woods wrote and taught the book Finance Fundamentals for Nonprofits, and while economics was clearly a passion, so were the arts. Although he had retired from the classroom a few years ago, he stayed on as a professor emeritus and continued to publish articles and assist colleagues and students. Woods had recently tied two of his favorite interests together by taking on an assignment to study the financial stability of U.S. arts organizations.
He had plenty left to do, before it all got cut short. On July 13, an auto crash on I-94 in Michigan killed Woods Bowman and seriously injured his wife, Michele. The two were taking a short trip to see an exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts. A truck driver rear-ended the couple’s car and pushed them into another vehicle. Just that fast, a 73-year old champion of the people was cruelly taken from us.
When I heard the news of Woods’ death, I felt immobilized with shock. Only three months earlier, he had graciously attended my book release event for Unlock Congress in downtown Chicago. Only weeks prior to that, my one-time professor had taken the time to read an advance copy and then offered a testimonial for the back cover. I was initially nervous to even share it with such a great mind, and overwhelmed to accept his seal of approval. Woods had even introduced me to a political science professor at DePaul whom he thought might want to include the book in her curriculum. Receiving all of this encouragement and assistance from a man I so admired was at once humbling and thrilling.
People who knew Woods and who worked with Woods all describe him as the quiet kind of leader who would let his work speak for itself. He didn’t need to grandstand or draw undue attention to the things he was achieving on others’ behalf – and this was a man who was in political office for more than a decade. Woods would just put his head down and get it done. And help others to do the same.
Untimely deaths are ineffably hard to make any sense of for those who endure the loss. We know it is one of life’s most unfair facts, and that there really aren’t any satisfactory answers. But paying tribute to a man by acknowledging the meaning of a life well spent can have the power of providing some small measure of comfort. This is why I write these words. Woods Bowman worked so hard and helped so many. We were not close friends, and yet I loved him. Since his passing, I keep thinking about the huge number of people who won’t ever know that the world will be a little less good without him. Even in my sadness, I feel fortunate to be one of the ones who do know.