Charles Bowlus

Charles R. Bowlus

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020
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On December 23, 2020, Charles Bowlus, fondly known as Chuck, passed away in the care of the Oshkosh Evergreen nursing staff after battling Covid-19. Charles was born in Iola, KS on Julius Caesar’s birthday in 1938, the son of the late George and Jane (Heffner) Bowlus. He possessed a gregarious and energetic spirit and packed a whole lot of living into his 82 years. As a kid, he developed a passion for baseball. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the game and was very proud of his skills as a catcher in high school. Charles’ love of learning and adventures took him far in life. While an undergraduate at the University of Kansas (KU), his plans to study chemistry went awry when he caused a fire in the chemistry lab, a fortuitous accident which led him to his true calling in the humanities. He went on to become a medievalist, completing his PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and teaching at the University of Arkansas Little Rock (UALR) for over twenty-five years.

While at KU, he met the love of his life Barbara Frey-Wyssling, a Swiss exchange student. The two of them met on a blind date and so began the most romantic tale, embellished by my father with each retelling. After Barbara’s return to Zurich and a short stint as a newspaper man in Colby, KS, Charles decided to join the army in hopes that, by preempting the draft, he might get stationed in Europe. This gamble eventually landed him in Bar-Le-Duc, France, working as a chaplain’s assistant, an experience that turned him into a life-long Francophile. Although he had carelessly lost the contact information of his Swiss Miss, who had long since given up on him, he concocted a plan to find her again. He knew that her father was a professor at the ETH in Zurich, so posing as an American colleague of Herr Professor Frey-Wyssling, Charles was able to secure a phone number. And so began the courtship, with Charles using long weekends to power over the mountains to Zurich on his ten-speed bicycle—feats which won over his future in-laws—or to rendezvous with Barbara in Paris. In 1966 the two were married on Lake Zurich and made their way back across the big pond on a steamer to start a life together.

First and foremost, Charles was a scholar of the Middle Ages, with a focus on the military campaigns of Charlemagne. While most historians had traditionally relied primarily on the Latin texts, Charles believed in an interdisciplinary approach which also included archelogy and physical geography. He believed you could not really understand the Carolingian campaigns without hiking or biking the terrain, and in doing so, he and Barbara grew to know the landscape of Central Europe like the back of their hands. He continued to research and write clear into his seventies, Barbara his primary editor. The two spent months together in their beloved second home in Munich, Germany, where they enjoyed biking, cultural events, sojourns with friends in beer gardens, and working at the Monumenta Germaniae, where the most comprehensive archive of medieval primary sources is housed. Like, Charlemagne, Charles believed that “to speak another language was to have another soul.” For an American, he was quite the polyglot, speaking German and French, and possessing reading knowledge of Latin.

Charles was a teacher. At the dinner table with a gigantic world map on the wall and a set of the World Book Enclopedia within arms’ reach, he never missed an opportunity to educate his children. A simple question would quickly evolve into a lecture. On the UALR campus he was known as an energetic, erudite, and witty. While his area of research was medieval history, he taught everything from world to environmental history. He had a bellowing voice which could be heard through the classroom walls. Although he was tone deaf, he loved to sing, especially when he saw students nodding off. His favorite was “La Marseillaise.” Yes, he was an iconoclast, a revolutionary at heart. He was THAT professor who made an indelible impression on students, not only engaging them in the complexities of human history but laying bare its relevance.

Charles was at once a team player and a rugged individualist. He was a committed Social Democrat, who believed that it was only through the taxation of the wealthy, investment in education and health care, and the regulation of corporations that social, racial, and economic equity could be achieved. He also loved the idea of being self-sufficient. When, in 1977, he and Barbara bought part of an old dairy farm on the outskirts of Little Rock, he promptly got the well going and bought a two-man saw. Petite Barbara was to be the other man. Needless to say, it was not long before he upgraded to a chainsaw, but he remained very proud of the fact that he was able to keep his home heated with BTUs harvested from his own plot of land. He loved that his kids could experience a Rousseauian childhood, surrounded by a menagerie of animals, exploring the thousands of acres of wetlands behind the house. He was anything but a gentleman farmer, always dirty, sweaty, and usually sunburnt. Together Charles and Barbara cultivated the most amazing organic garden, freezing and canning tons of produce each year. He planted and tended fruit trees, each with their own name. And yes, he slaughtered some poultry, all Christened with historical names like Saint Valentine and Louis XVI.
Charles was a frugal man with epicurean tastes. He couldn’t care less about clothes and believed in living off the land and eating seasonally. Yet, he could easily drop $100 on some fine wine and imported cheeses. While serving in Europe, he became friends with an accomplished amateur chef, who taught him the basics of French cuisine, skills he perfected with the help of Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking. With time, he branched out, making all kinds of ethnic dishes. In middle age, Charles started growing hops and found a new calling in beer brewing. Together with his dear friends, Jim Parins, an English professor, and Tom Lynch, a biology professor, he could be seen on the front porch, huddled around a cauldron of mead, holding a hydrometer up to the light as steam rose around them.

Charles was also a generous man, welcoming people of all creeds. He loved to host friends and international students in his home. He had, however, absolutely no patience for mediocrity, mendacity, or bigotry. Extraordinarily well-read, with exhaustive knowledge of history, he never failed to call truth to power. Raised in the Presbyterian Church, he knew the Bible well; yet he was also a free thinker, a staunch believer in the separation of church and state, with a strong aversion to organized religion. In 1981, when Arkansas governor Frank White signed the Act 590, which would have required the teaching of creation science in the public schools, he was one of the first to sign on as a plaintiff in the ensuing Arkansas Supreme Court case McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education.

In 2008, he and Barbara moved to Oshkosh, WI to be closer to their daughter and her family. Despite gradually losing most of his mobility over the past ten years, Charles remained actively engaged in life and appreciated the opportunity to live vicariously through others. He delighted in the accomplishments of his children and grandchildren. He particularly cherished Sunday night dinners with his family and absolutely loved the AFS exchange students hosted by his daughter’s family. He embraced Wisconsin fish fries and joined his grandson in rooting for the Brewers and Packers. He did, however, remain loyal to the Royals and was overjoyed to see the Chiefs win Super Bowl LIV. He was a committed Jayhawk basketball fan, seeing his team win three NCAA championships in his lifetime. He was especially proud to have been able to vote by mail in the last election. The Bowlus family is grateful to the staff in Evergreen’s long-term care facility for their noble efforts to care for him, especially during these long pandemic months.

Charles is survived by his life’s companion of 54 years, Barbara Bowlus; his daughter Cordelia (Michael) and son Christopher (Carrie); four beloved grandchildren, Cordelia, Clementine, Konrad, and Kassandra, aka Zosia; his sister Judy Cronin (Thomas); and many wonderful nieces and nephews.
“Omnia Fluunt, omnia mutantur
Quod fuimus, aut sumus, cras non erimus.” –Ovid

“Everything flows, everything changes
What we were and what we are, we will not be tomorrow.”—Ovid

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Charles Bowlus’ name to the History Department at University of Kansas, Lawrence. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
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Oliver Hahn

Posted at 03:53pm
Late as it may be, my sincere condolences to everyone. I've had the pleasure of being one of Chuck's students (well, I would have never called him Chuck; too formal a German here). I often remember him, his teachings, his fantastic scholarship, but also the influence he's had in my life. Just the other day I told my son how I had this undergrad professor who really knew--as someone who knew German well--how to help me go from someone who had learned English as a foreign language in Germany to someone who can live, breathe, and write as if native in the language in the States, something that was obviously instrumental in my life in the States. And more than that. Chuck believed in my ability to create original scholarship in East Frankish history, and mentored me in a large project of which I am still very proud. Once done with undergrad, I ended up going to law school instead, but that sense of identity he helped me form about myself, that's something I will cherish for the rest of my life. Few I know who can even hope to measure up to Chuck.

Catherine Myers Bowser

Posted at 04:08pm
Charles was a joy. The world was fortunate to have him.
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Vicki and Doug Austin/Moss

Posted at 03:58pm
Our warmest thoughts are with you, Barbara and family. We will miss Chuck's big smile and his booming "Hello". He will be missed.
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Shirley Sticht Schuette

Posted at 08:33pm
By the time I started as a full time student in the Donaghey Scholars program at UALR, Chuck had retired, so I never had him as a teacher in my history classes. But I did enjoy his company at the German Club Stammtisch. One time stands out. I majored in German Studies, and Barbara was my adviser for my Scholars senior project. It involved interviewing recent immigrants from Germany, hopefully in German. For practice, I interviewed Barbara at a Stammtisch. We advertised it, so there was a good crowd. Somehow it came out that Chuck learned German and became fluent in it as part of his courting of Barbara. I turned from interviewing her to ask Chuck about that. Before I finished my question, he said, “Es war ein Befehl!” One he was no doubt quite willing to obey obviously! The other experience that stands out was finding their names in the documents when I researched the Creation Science Trial for the Butler Center and writing a readers’ theater script about it. Their insights were helpful. I have enjoyed reading the tributes here and on Facebook. I have learned more about two people who had been very special to me.

Shirley Sticht Schuette

Cordelia Bowlus Posted at 02:41pm

Thank you so much, Shirley. I can hear my father's words: "Es war ein Befehl!" She claims it was not a Befehl, and we all know that he loved to embellish, but certainly, he would have done anything to earn the privilege to spend his whole life with her! Do you have a link you to the documents from that trial? I would love to read what they said! Wishing you good health and much strength as prepare for new beginnings.

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