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Dr. Otis R. Bowen: The Legacy

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Published 05/06/2013

Dr. Otis Ray Bowen died Saturday.  He was 95.

He was a medical doctor, an army physician in World War II, a general practitioner in northern Indiana, a county coroner, a state representative, a Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, a leader of the minority caucus in the House, a two-term Governor of Indiana, and a Secretary of Health and Human Services in President Reagan’s cabinet.

Over the past 32 years we had the opportunity to come to know Governor Bowen.  When he left the governorship in 1981, the Political Science Department at Ball State University founded the annual Bowen Institute on Political Participation.  It was funded by John Fisher, then CEO of the Ball Corporation in Muncie.  John wanted to establish a program that would honor the public service legacy of Governor Bowen.  Those of us who were instrumental in forming the Institute on Political Participation focused on the declining interest in politics and public service that was taking place in America.  Long before “civic engagement” became a national concern, Governor Bowen was appearing at the annual Bowen Institute, encouraging students and citizens to become active in their communities.  He personally attended the Institute every year except when he was in Washington, D.C., in the President’s cabinet.  Even then, he videotaped a unique message for the participants.  Each year he spoke of the critical importance of being involved in public life, whether one was a Democrat, Republican, or Independent.

Since statehood, there have been fifty governors of Indiana.  From that pantheon are but a handful who dramatically changed Indiana’s government and moved Hoosiers forward.  These governors are the transformational leaders, and they include men such as Oliver P. Morton, James P. Goodrich, Paul V. McNutt, Matthew E. Welsh, and Otis R. Bowen.

Governor Otis R. Bowen fundamentally changed Indiana, and America.  He cut property taxes in Indiana and raised revenue by increasing the sales tax, the most massive revision of the state’s tax structure since Governor Matthew Welsh in the early 1960s.  The popularity of his tax package continues to this day, including the recent changes that solidified the property tax cuts via a constitutional amendment.

He knew the medical profession from the inside.  He was most proud of his work as a family physician.  He saw to it that the IU School of Medicine was transformed, with medical classes held at other state universities, with an emphasis on training general practitioners.  He passed legislation that limited the liability of physicians while maintaining legal protection for patients.  These reforms made Indiana one of the few states to avoid a shortage of medical doctors.  In addition, he put in place the statewide medical air transport system where helicopters are dispatched to transport patients to the appropriate hospital for treatment.

Knowing Indiana is the “Crossroads of America,” he did not wait for federal funds to complete the interstate highway system.  He used state funds to speed up completion of the highways in his first term, and then waited for federal funds to reimburse the state coffers.

When he joined President Reagan’s cabinet as HHS Secretary, he was confronted with the AIDS crisis.  He immediately launched a nationwide information campaign to inform individuals about the disease and he encouraged more funding for medical research.  Linking up with the Surgeon General, he also stepped up efforts to educate Americans about the dangers of smoking.  In his early 90s, he often said that “there are only three of us still living who graduated from IU medical school in the class of 1942.  We three are the only ones who never smoked.”

In 2007, Ball State University added new programs to honor Governor Bowen by creating the Bowen Center for Public Affairs.  This Center continues the annual Bowen Institute on Political Participation, but also formed a Public Service Institute that delivers cutting-edge programs to local communities throughout Indiana with projects such as Community Conversations and training programs for local government officials.  The Center also founded the Institute for Policy Research, which conducts the annual Hoosier Survey on issues facing our state.  These activities are inspired by the public life and personal integrity of the 44th Governor of the State of Indiana.  The Bowen Center for Public Affairs is just one example of his impact on all of us.  When you enter one of the Interstate Highways, you will be driving on a roadway that received the personal attention of Otis Bowen.  When you see a helicopter landing at your local hospital, you will be reminded of Otis Bowen.  When you visit your physician, you will be reminded that Indiana is one of the few states without a doctor shortage—because of the programs put in place by Otis Bowen.  When we read of new medical advancements that hold promise for attacking disease, we know that Dr. Otis Bowen was instrumental in that effort.

We have witnessed the passing of a great Indiana governor and public servant for all Americans.