Harry Bowen, the Heather King of Cape Cod

Mar 25, 2013

  Harry Bowen was known by many names. But, just maybe, his favorite name might have been, "The Heather King."

"He was the Heather King of Cape Cod," said Roberta Clark of the Barnstable County Cooperative Extension, where Harry Bowen volunteered and shared his love for the low-growing heather plant and its blooms.

"He learned about Heather probably 40 to 50 years ago," she said. "He propagated them for over 35 years, and many of the heather beds on the Cape came from Harry."

Bowen's passion for gardening led him to become a certified Master Gardner through the Extension. His volunteer work with the organization led to him staffing an information phone line, as well as designing and creating demonstration gardens.

In an interview at the Barnstable County Fairgrounds, Clark said Bowen probably was the most ideal volunteer she ever had, because he was very interested in gardening, and because he loved working with people.

"There's a heather bed here on the Fair Grounds, there's heather at Heritage Plantation," she said. "I have heather in my yard. He gave many, many rooted cuttings to the master gardener plant sale every year, and they sold out in a blink. So much of the heath and heather on the Cape came from Harry."

Bowen died last month at the age of 90, but he'll be remembered in Cape Cod gardens when the heather blooms.  

Arne Bowen is Harry's adopted son. He said that when his father died, Bowen left behind 350 different sorts of heather in the yard.

"He was just unbelievable in what he did," Arne said, "and the time he found to do it. He built his own greenhouse. And he would have seedlings there, and then he would plant them and I've got cards now that he's gone from people saying, 'Oh, he gave me a sample of this and its still growing in the yard'."

Bowen knew about the birds -- their songs and habits. He knew about insects, and animal life. He also knew the night sky, and way of the sea. Arne says his father was a certified master Navigator, and an instructor in the Power Squadron, where people go to learn boating and sailing. When he was on those boats, fishing or cruising, another name he took on was, "Captain."

But, Bowen probably was best known as Doctor. He was Doctor Bowen, one of the original doctors at the new Falmouth Hospital in 1963, and serving as the facility's first anesthesiologist.

"Anytime that I meet someone who finds out, 'Ooh Doctor Bowen was your father -- oh, what a wonderful man.' What a human being that had the people has his best interest. He would make sure that when he had patients at the hospital. He made rounds twice a day, whether that was on a day off, or a day that he was actually there working. he would go down in the morning, make rounds."

Bowen's daughter Tracy, who lives in Gloucester, said that growing up, she always heard stories about her dad.

"I know that it was really important to him to connect with the patients and reassure them on the process," she said. "Growing up I heard from people all the time how great it was that the had done that, and how it made them feel.

"I also heard from a lot of people who he delivered. If the obstetrician couldn't get there in time, he actually delivered a lot of babies, which I did not know until only a few years ago," she said. "It's kind of cool that he never mentioned it."

Bowen was born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He studied at Yale University, receiving a PH. D in Bacteriology. He worked for the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard before going to Medical School at BU at age 40, where he trained as a anesthesiologist.

While interning at a Rhode Island hospital, Bowen heard about the job at the new Falmouth Hospital, a place he chose to come because of its close proximity to the ocean. Years later, when he was retired and suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and the chart at the end of the bed was doctor's Bowen's, Arne was leaving the hospital after a visit with his dad when he said he was stopped by a nurse at the front desk, who wanted to talk about a simple, yet memorable, act of kindness.

"And she said, "I just can't tell you how sad I am.' Because he actually gave her anesthesia during one of my operations. That had to be 25  years ago. 'And I'm lying there and i have a tremendous itch on my nose and your father was standing next to me and I told him my nose was just so itchy, and I couldn't itch it. And he leaned forward and he scratched the tip of my nose, and she said I've never forgotten it, never."

In his later years, with his memory failing, Bowen would sometimes watch war movies, hours and hours of them, and his daughter in law Andrea Grepsted said they seemed to remind him of his time serving as a Naval officer in World War II. Throughout his life, Bowen didn't talk about the war. He didn't talk about the action he saw in the Pacific theater or the time he spent in Japan after the United States dropped two nuclear bombs there. But those movies seemed to bring it all back.

"And we would go into his home and he would be crying. It was very upsetting to him. So, regarding memories, he was reflecting back and found it disturbing. I think it was a connection, he was making a connection to the past."

As his time became short, and his memory faded, Arnie and Andrea were his primary caregivers, along with visits from Bowen's daughters Brooks and Tracy. For such a brilliant man, losing his past and his knowledge was frustrating, but he understood what was happening. He told his family that he would know when his time here was done.

"The garden turned out to be, through his life, very important," Arnie said. "However, towards the end, when some of the other abilities winged on him, and he made the statement to andrea and I. He said, '90 percent of my living is taking care of your yard. The day that I can't do any more gardening, I don't want to be around.' And he made that very clear."

Bowen died on February 14. One friend said it was appropriate that Dr. Bowen died on Valentine's Day, because it meant God got one of the greatest angels he ever could receive, on the Day of Love.