CHARLES WALKER BOWSER was born in Philadelphia, Pa. to Charles A. and Viola Walker Bowser on October 9, 1930. His father was a laborer who worked as a carpenter, plumber, and bricklayer to support the family. Under the guidance of his parents, Charles and his siblings Thelma and John grew up in a very religious household. They attended church every Sunday, and Charles sang in the church choir. As a young child, one of his favorite games was to march around the basement of their family home with his sister Thelma, singing their favorite hymns.
Charles’ favorites were “How Great Thou Art” and “Onward Christian Soldiers”. Later, as a prominent Philadelphia attorney with his own practice, Charles would sponsor Thanksgiving dinners for homeless families at Mount Olivet Tabernacle Baptist Church at 42nd & Wallace Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, complete with a visit from Santa Claus. Charles was deeply moved when the children would ask Santa for a home or food for Christmas presents. Charles attended Reynolds Elementary School and Vaux Junior High School before entering Central High School.
At Central, he excelled as a full back on the football team. In 1948, when he graduated, his prowess as a star football player was rewarded with an athletic scholarship to play football at Temple University. Charles played football at Temple for about a year and a half until a broken leg caused him to lose his athletic scholarship, but that did not end his academic career. Like so many other Temple students of his generation, he worked to pay for his education, graduating from Temple in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism.
Charlie Bowser, as he was known to his friends, was a talented writer. Although he did not realize his dream to become a journalist, in part because the Korean War broke out during his third year at Temple, Charles went on to publish two books: Rethinking Cities to Make them Work for Us, Educational Impact, Inc. 1979 and Let the Bunker Bum: the Final Battle with Move, Camino Books 1989.
The latter was the result of his service on the blue ribbon commission appointed by former Mayor W. Wilson Goode to investigate the MOVE tragedy and Charlie’s genuine grief and outrage over the events that occurred on Osage Avenue. Charlie also shared his writing talents with his family and friends. In addition to writing numerous poems and greetings for every holiday, including a poem entitled “Black Woman” for the love of his life, his wife Barbara Gertrude Potts Bowser, each Christmas for over 25 years; he also authored and sent a Christmas poem to a long list of family, friends and acquaintances. One of the family favorites is “The First Homeless Christmas.”
In 1952, after graduation, Charles joined the United States Armed Services, completed training at the United States Army Explosive Ordinance School in Aberdeen Maryland and served as an Explosive Disposal Expert for the Army from 1952 to 1954, earning the rank of Sergeant. After returning from Korea, he attended Temple University School of Law, graduating in 1957 with a Juris Doctorate. Shortly after graduation, Charlie met and married the love of his life Barbara Gertrude Potts after a three month courtship.
He was immediately impressed by her beauty and independence, and not at all intimidated by the stiff competition to win her hand. They were married in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at Bright Hope Baptist Church by Charles’ mentor the Reverend Dr. William H. Gray, II. They had three children Leslie, Maria and Charles, Jr. and remained married for almost 50 years until Barbara’s death on July 26, 2008.
Charles began his long career of public service in the 1960s under the tutelage of the Reverend Dr. Gray, II and Samuel Evans. In 1964, he was chosen Executive Director of Philadelphia’s Anti-Poverty Action Committee and in 1967 he was appointed the first African- American Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia by Mayor James Tate. In 1968, he became the first Executive Director of the Philadelphia Urban Coalition, now known as the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, In just two years, by the end of 1970, the total value of Urban Coalition programs had grown from $3.9 million to over $12 million.
Almost half of that growth was the direct result of programs designed by Charlie Bowser and his staff. As Executive Director, Charles also developed^programs that provided loan and bonding opportunities to minority contractors who faced barriers at local banks, ^e established a model block housing rehabilitation program and secured federal funding for a program to assist Hispanic businesses. He also created the High School Academy Program which provides needed job training for high school students. The program became a national model and continues today as the Philadelphia Academies program. During his last two years at the Urban Coalition, from 1973 to 1975, Charles also served as director of the National Association of Urban Coalition Executive Directors.
Charlie Bowser’s prominence, drive and commitment to public service led him to run for Mayor of Philadelphia twice, first in 1975 as a third party candidate for the Philadelphia Party and in 1979 in the Democratic Party primary.
He surprised the Philadelphia political establishment in 1975 by coming in second, defeating the Republican candidate. His performance deepened the convictions of Philadelphia’s African American community and its progressive liberal white community to diversify the Office of Mayor by electing an African American.
In 1979, he ran again carrying every black ward in the City and two white wards, earning him 44 percent of the vote. Although he did not win, he laid the foundation for the election in 1983 of the City’s former Managing Director, W. Wilson Goode, as the first African American Mayor of Philadelphia, After his second run for Mayor, Charles Bowser returned to his law practice and continued his public service efforts.
Both before his mayoral campaigns and after, he enjoyed an outstanding legal career as a successful civil rights, corporate and litigation attorney in Philadelphia. In the 1960s, he represented the NAACP in a case which ended the use of blackface by marchers in the Philadelphia Mummers Parade, and in the 1990s, he successfully challenged what was then known as Pennsylvania Act 101, a law that placed an unfair and unconstitutional burden on local environmental companies.
Over the course of his outstanding career and lifetime, Charlie Bowser never wavered in his commitment to public service and excellence in his legal career. He served on numerous boards and commissions, including Thomas Jefferson University, St. Joseph’s College, Central High School Alumni, the Police Athletic League, and the Salvation Army Advisory Board. He received several government and legal appointments, including the Pennsylvania Judicial Commission on Judicial Reform, the Advisory Committee on Appellate Court Rules of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Chairman of the Federal Judicial Nominating Commission of Pennsylvania, Co-Chairman of the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter Revision Transition Team, Special Counsel to Temple University, Special Counsel to the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, General Counsel to the Philadelphia Charter Review Advisory Committee, Special Counsel to the Drafting Chairman of the Platform Committee for the 1988 Democratic National Convention and Special Counsel to AFNA, the American Foundation for Negro Affairs.
During his lifetime, Charlie Bowser has been recognized with countless honors and awards by all levels of government, the legal community and Philadelphia’s religious community. Although those awards are too numerous to name in their entirety, they include the 2007 Philadelphia Tribune Leadership Award, the Philadelphia Bowl presented in 2006 by former Mayor John Street, 2006 African American Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award, 2006 Pennsylvania Black History Month honoree by Governor Edward Rendell, 2005 Philadelphia NAACP Cecil B Moore Award, 2005 Finn Memorial Baptist Church Christian Men’s Fellowship Man of the Year Award, 2004 David P. Richardson Community Service Award by Odunde, Inc., 2002 State Nation Builder Recipient by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, 1999 Law and Justice Award from AFNA’s International Humanitarian Award Committee, the 1998 First Annual Hall of Fame Award by the Philadelphia Barrister’s Association and the 1996 NAACP One Nation Award.
Charles Bowser has been described as a force in local, state and national politics. He will be remembered as a treasured son of Philadelphia’s African American community. To his family and friends, he will be remembered as a devoted and loving husband and father, an avid tennis player who could always be found on the tennis courts at Chamounix in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, or the Island Inn in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he vacationed at his house there several times a year.
He will be remembered as a standard of excellence in every aspect of his life. He has gone home to be with the Lord, his wife Barbara and their daughter Maria Stephanie Bowser. He is survived by: his daughter, Leslie Bowser Hope, Esq.; his son, Charles W. Bowser, II; his sister, Thelma Rambert; three grandchildren, Lindsay C. Hope, Cameron J. Bowser and Charles Douglas Bowser; two sisters-in-law and numerous nieces and nephews.